“The Global Network Initiative: Past, Present, and Future” by Leslie Harris
How did GNI Start?
GNI is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Those of us who originally came together, from companies, civil society groups, academics, and investors to discuss how ICT companies should respond to growing challenges to privacy and free expression around the world did not have a common vision. At the first meeting, there was a lack of trust in the room and it was far from certain that there would be a second meeting, let alone that we could bridge our differences and fashion a common response. And yet slowly, we moved forward. We listened deeply and learned from each other. At times, there was sharp disagreement, but we found ways to compromise. The commitments to privacy and free expression in foundational human rights instruments became our lodestar. We drafted a groundbreaking set of principles and implementation guidelines to help companies navigate the human rights challenges of difficult markets, a governance charter to guide the operation of the new organization, and an accountability, learning, and policy framework. The framework set out the rules that would govern the third-party assessment of company compliance. It committed the new organization to ongoing learning and pledged that the companies on their own and in concert with the other members of GNI would “promote rule of law and reform of laws, policies, and practices that infringe on freedom of expression and privacy.” We understood that we were not at the end of the process. We were just beginning.
Where is GNI Today?
Today, the GNI commitments inform the policies and practices of twelve major companies in the Internet and telecom sector that serve global communities. The membership is geographically diverse with civil society organizations, academics, and investors from countries around the world. It is fair to say that the GNI commitments have become global norms that inform the policies and practices of companies everywhere. The GNI companies regularly undergo a rigorous assessment of their compliance with their commitments. Tools, such as human rights risk assessments, once unknown in the sector, are now incorporated into due diligence activities when entering new markets or developing new products and services. New innovative tools, such as public transparency reports, developed to support GNI commitments, have become an industry best practice.
What is more, the Global Network Initiative has become a powerful multistakeholder voice on public policy and other government actions that impact privacy and free expression, speaking out on proposed laws that threaten the rights of Internet users, issuing reports to support the advocacy activities of NGOs on the ground, and testifying before global and national bodies. As ‘Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of the Paradigm Initiative, explains, participation in GNI brings a new level of power and expertise to NGO advocacy on the ground.
“The GNI provides a unique platform for civil society to interface with ICT companies in a way which would not be possible without the GNI membership. The importance of this alliance to our work trying to influence public policy to advance rights and minimize risks online is invaluable and of significant impact.”
What does the future hold for GNI?
The world today is far more challenging for the ICT sector than it was ten years ago. Legitimate concerns about terrorist activities, hate speech, and other harmful content online have increased the demand for content takedown, even in democratic countries. Government surveillance has become pervasive, and countries like China are already deploying and exporting a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled tools including facial recognition to surveil, score and control its citizens. Data theft by state and non-state actors is escalating, putting both privacy and security at risk.
At the same time, government-backed misinformation campaigns are on the rise. Governments and non-state actors are increasingly launching misinformation campaigns to discredit opponents, manipulate public opinion and undermine core democratic institutions. As the Russian interference in the US election makes clear, government assaults on human rights can easily evade borders and company safeguards.
As GNI enters its second decade, the future challenges to privacy and free expression in the ICT sector will surely be quite different than those envisioned at the Initiative’s founding. In the next decade, AI-enabled technologies including facial recognition will become ubiquitous tools for countries and companies alike. The ability to distort reality and spread misinformation on social media will be amplified by the emergence of “ deep fakes” technology, which makes it possible to create audio and video of people saying and doing things they never said or did. How will GNI rise to this challenge? What does responsible company decision making look like in this far more complex and challenging digital world? GNI has a critical role to play in answering this question.
Leslie Harris is an independent academic member of GNI and previously served on the GNI Board while president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.