Corporate reputation is a pressure point in the fight for digital human rights

"Make it right, make it fair or we will leave." This threat is nothing short of an internet giant's worst nightmare. 

Tom Liacas
22 November 2015

Google China.

Google China. Wikicommons/ Fan Yang. Some rights reserved.Internet giants Google, Twitter and Facebook were recently subjected to a compliance test by the Open Technology Institute's Ranking Digital Rights initiative. Cynics will not be surprised to hear that these companies all received failing grades when evaluated on user privacy and data security practices. In a world that has absorbed Edward Snowden's revelations on the NSA's snooping on private communications, with the alleged collaboration of the largest internet platforms, we can expect such cynics to be many.

What's really surprising here is how little we have come to expect from these companies who once positioned themselves as champions of a "...more open and connected world", to cite Facebook's mission statement. One might also wonder how these brands feel about such repeated slights to their image. When it comes to helping or hindering human rights across the world, does reputation still matter to the leading social networks? Or have they, perhaps, simply grown too big to care?

Just a short decade ago, in a more innocent phase of the internet era, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke of freedom as the "lifeblood" of the information society. "Without openness, without the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, the information revolution will stall, and the information society we hope to build will be stillborn." he maintained.

In 2006, the year following Annan's pronouncement, Yahoo! Microsoft and Google were embroiled in multiple human rights scandals involving censorship of Chinese search results. Yahoo! had gone even further by disclosing the private emails of Chinese reporter Shi Tao to state authorities, a move which subsequently led to his arrest. In a 30 page report following the incidents, Amnesty International strongly condemned the complicity of tech companies with the repressive practices of the Chinese government. "They have, through their actions, directly and admittedly contradicted their values and stated policies," Amnesty declared.

Not long after, the actions of smaller software companies working with governments to crack down on dissidents generated fresh outrage. Here, French company Amesys was revealed as a surveillance vendor to Gaddafi’s Libya, while the Anglo-German company FinFisher worked with the governments of Ethiopia, Vietnam, Bahrain and Qatar to set up software that allowed them to spy on their own citizens. Then, to crown ten years of plummeting public faith in the tech sector, Edward Snowden shared the full extent of the US National Security Agency's penetration of thousands of online user accounts across the world.

In spite of their repeat offenses, however, there are signs that even multi-billion dollar internet brands do give a damn about bad press and public opinion. According to public relations experts such as Stephen Waddington, Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum, corporate reputation on human rights issues is important for tech giants. Waddington believes that by virtue of their positioning, Facebook and Google both purport to work towards a "higher purpose that is aligned with the public good." With regards to their consumer base, whose opinion matters deeply to these brands, he observes that: "freedom of speech is a public expectation in democratic markets."

World markets also clearly expect and value privacy and security. When trust in data privacy is publicly compromised, this kind of reputation damage incurs real economic penalties. For example, when news of the NSA's digital spying system made it clear that US-based software companies were open books for the agency, the Brazilian government cancelled a large contract with Microsoft over security concerns. For Waddington, internet platforms could pay an even greater price, should they overstep and betray the trust of their public. "If a media or tech organisation fails to meet public expectation of the level of service, the audience will leave. User trust and confidence is critical to their success." he states.

Yet another sign that reputation matters to tech giants is the extensive list of social responsibility initiatives they have deployed in the past few years. Facebook's Zuckerberg, who has given millions to fight Ebola, has notably rolled out Internet.org in an attempt "... to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access." Facebook has also recently put in place a sizeable "Social Good" department, which helps raise money through the platform for humanitarian causes and disaster relief, among other things. 

Google, who pulled out of China after the censorship controversy in 2010, has worked more directly to support certain human rights efforts through its Google Ideas program, designed to explore “how technology can enable people to confront threats in the face of conflict, instability and repression.” Ironically or not, depending on your level of cynicism, it funds projects such as Uproxy and The Guardian Project, which are intended to help dissidents and reporters to evade government surveillance of their online communications. 

Human rights campaigners are still skeptical with regards to the overall impact of such initiatives. When asked about the value of programs such as Google Ideas, Tanya O’Carroll from Amnesty International’s technology and human rights team observes that “[They] just don’t meet the scale that companies of that size can add their weight to.” Srdja Popovic, director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, believes that larger companies are always caught in a conflict of interest when it comes to supporting human rights. “The moment they start to produce something for activists, they risk being expelled from repressive countries,” he says of tech companies operating in non-democratic markets.  

While motivating the tech sector to implement deeper and systemic safeguards that would protect the transformative power of internet networks, digital human rights advocates clearly need to keep up the pressure. Aside from Amnesty International, which has long kept close tabs on the sector, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access are now actively tracking social network policies that expose activists and dissidents to the long arm of repressive governments. Their work to preserve anonymity on Facebook, for example, is already bearing fruit.

For advocates, there is a recipe for successful campaigns that put the screws on corporate reputation. This certainly involves monitoring and reporting on bad practices but it also involves mobilizing large numbers of ethically-minded users who would urge tech brands to live up to the lofty ideals in their mission statements. To those who believe it impossible either to mobilize internet users towards rights activism or to spook multi-billion dollar corporations, recent victories in the fight for "Net Neutrality", especially in the US, should provide ample proof that such campaigns can and do work.

A wider grassroots movement in defense of digital human rights, both our own and those of activists in closed societies, carries with it an inherent threat to its targets. "Make it right, make it fair or we will leave." This threat is nothing short of an internet giant's worst nightmare. Without users, after all, their platforms are worthless.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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