Guest Post by Julia Theilen:
1. Application of Monitoring and Evaluation Frameworks to Governance – Case Ranking Digital Rights
On March 23, 2017, the nonprofit research project Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) launched the results of its second Corporate Accountability Index. This Index ranks 22 of the world’s most powerful Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies – for example Facebook, AT&T and Apple – on their disclosed commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.
Internet and Telecommunications Companies Disrespecting Users’ Digital Rights
Sustainable business in relation to our physical environment has become the norm. Today, companies commonly engage in extensive efforts to take environmental and social responsibility for their business activities. However, most companies do not pay the same respect to our digital environment.
The results of the inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, published in 2015, showed that all Internet and telecommunications companies analyzed were lacking adequate disclosure regarding to what extent they are putting users’ privacy and freedom of expression at risk. Companies did not sufficiently inform users about compliance with government requests to shut down websites, remove contents online or to give access to user information. If companies are not publicly held accountable for these actions, they can easily continue disrespecting citizens’ digital human rights. Internet and telecommunications corporations need to contribute to creating an information ecosystem in which our fundamental human rights, such as privacy and freedom of expression, are respected. “If international legal and treaty frameworks cannot adequately protect human rights, then other types of governance and accountability mechanisms are urgently needed”1.
Over the past decade, several initiatives started emerging in response to a “governance gap”1 that allows owners and operators of Internet platforms and services to disrespect users’ human rights. A powerful lever to get companies held accountable for our digital environment is the RDR Corporate Accountability Index; in this blog post, the Index serves as an example for the application of monitoring and evaluation frameworks to media governance.
Framework Categories: Governance, Privacy, and Freedom of Expression
The Corporate Accountability Index ranks companies in three different categories: governance, privacy and freedom of expression.
- Governance: This category evaluates to what extent companies demonstrate that they have governance processes in place to ensure that they respect the human rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Indicators within this category are deduced from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other industry-specific human rights standards such as the Global Network Initiative.
“These Guiding Principles should be understood […] in terms of their objective of enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights […] thereby also contributing to a socially sustainable globalization.” 2
- Freedom of Expression: Within this category, researchers look at the disclosed policies and practices of companies and analyze whether they demonstrate concrete ways in which they respect the right to freedom of expression of users. In this case, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international human rights instruments serve as standards for evaluation. For instance, companies should demonstrate a strong public commitment to transparency in terms of how they respond to governments’ and private entities’ demands.
- Privacy: This category refers to a company’s disclosed policies and practices regarding concrete ways in which it respects the right to privacy of users, as articulated in those same documents as just listed for the previous category.
RDR Holding Companies Accountable for Protecting Users’ Digital Rights
The RDR project is of great relevance for the protection of citizens’ fundamental human rights in a digital age, because their ranking induces greater corporate accountability for a free and open Internet. The Corporate Accountability Index serves as an important tool to increase public pressure on Internet and telecommunications companies and the research results provide empirical and factual proof for companies’ disrespectful business practices regarding users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
Case RDR: Application of Monitoring and Evaluation Framework
The open-access methodology developed by RDR researchers serves as a framework to organize and constrain power that governments and private entities hold over Internet users’ freedom of expression and privacy. While constraining corporate and governmental power, the index is an instrument to amplify citizens’ power in securing their rights in the digital age.
The RDR project affects company practices in various ways: It provides a framework for external organizations to monitor and evaluate companies’ disclosure regarding governance of respecting users’ digital rights. Moreover, Internet or telecommunications companies that have not been analyzed by RDR can use the framework internally to develop comprehensive strategies to improve their governance structures and to identify concrete aspects that can be improved. Hence, the ranking also offers companies a platform to communicate their success and build their public image as well as monitor their yearly progress or compare themselves to competitors.
2017 Index Documenting Companies’ Increased Efforts and Identifying Governance Gaps
In comparison to the results of 2015, the results of the recently published Index reveal progress and lack of progress. In many aspects, companies have improved; this proves how effective projects like RDR are in that they initiate companies to disclose information more transparently regarding their efforts to respect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. More importantly, the 2017 index shows that all 22 companies are currently not providing users with an adequate level of transparency and that they are putting their digital rights at risk. There is a lot of room for improvement for all companies; none of them score high in all categories.
See the 2017 results being presented at the launch event on March 23 here:
Aiming at Governments to Promote Internet Governance Deduced from RDR Indicators
The Ranking Digital Rights project is housed at New America, a “think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age” 3. The think tank was founded in 1999 and has ever since been committed to finding solutions to public problems by nurturing public conversation, developing ideas and policies to address public problems, creating and testing new technologies and using media to engage audiences.
Ultimately, with the corporate accountability index, New America aims to influence public policy on Internet governance. The indicators defined in the methodology are openly accessible, seeking to contribute to setting standards and providing empirical, “actionable data to stakeholders, including investors, human rights advocates”1 and policy makers. If the indicators to evaluate companies’ commitments would be transferred to government policies, hard power through legal consequences would be in place to hold companies accountable for respecting users’ privacy and free expression. That way, companies would be obliged to respect users’ digital rights.
As the case of RDR shows, protecting digital human rights requires civic engagement and monitoring through NGOs like New America. It is our responsibility to fight for our digital rights, companies and governments will not simply hand them to us, unless we increase public pressure.
1MacKinnon, R., Maréchal, N. & Kumar, P. (2016): Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet. Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chatham House.
2 United Nations Human Rights (2011): Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
3New America (2017): Our Story.
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