Judge the Global Network Initiative by How It Judges Companies

Recent press stories about the Global Network Initiative (GNI) paint a distorted picture, judging the Initiative's effectiveness and impact based primarily on the number of companies that have joined the effort to date. That's the wrong yardstick. While the GNI seeks to secure a sector-wide commitment to uphold basic principles of privacy and free expression and to provide companies with framework for decision-making that will deliver on these commitments, the real measure of success (and, ultimately, the key to attracting more companies to join) will be whether corporate members—to date, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!—are making business decisions that uphold their commitments.

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Dear Microsoft: Please Stop Helping Russia Abuse Advocates

This weekend's New York Times article was a wake up call to Microsoft and the entire Information and communications technology industry about the dangers of complying with government actions aimed at limiting freedom of expression and stifling dissent.

To date, the most publicized repression has been censoring web content or surveillance of Internet users. The Russians took a different tack, using anti piracy laws to crack down on independent non-governmental organizations and non-violent government critics. Microsoft has a vested interest in anti piracy enforcement - piracy is rampant in Russia. But targeting human rights activists and news organizations for enforcement is clearly aimed not at protecting Microsoft's intellectual property, but at crippling political opponents and curbing basic freedoms. And Microsoft's representatives in Russia cooperated in those proceedings, providing the legal pretext and evidentiary basis for raids, criminal and civil charges and penalties that effectively closed down the targeted organizations.

One of our human rights colleagues in Russia was a victim of this practice, and we reached out to Microsoft to try to find a solution, both to this specific case and to the wider pattern of abusive enforcement over the past several years. Microsoft's recently announced policies to address several of these concerns.

Importantly, Microsoft will undertake an independent investigation of its Russian anti piracy team and its role in collaborating with Russian authorities. We encourage Microsoft to ensure that the individuals and civil society groups targeted for selective enforcement are interviewed as part of this review. We have also recommended that Microsoft maintain headquarters level oversight of its Russian anti piracy efforts to ensure that its responses to future Russian anti piracy investigations do not facilitate repression. As our letter to Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer points out, and as our Russian colleagues have cautioned, local representatives will likely remain vulnerable to pressure from Russian authorities to collaborate in politically motivated proceedings.

Our Russian human rights colleagues would welcome a working relationship with Microsoft. As defendants in these cases, and targets of potential abuse, they are well positioned to advise on risks and development of new policies. Microsoft should make every effort to consult with them as it develops new practices and procedures to respond to the concerns. The Global Network Initiative can also play an important role in helping Microsoft and other companies at risk to develop strategies to address government abuse of intellectual property laws to curb dissent, and to respond to such demands appropriately.

We welcome Microsoft's commitment to extend access to its free software problem. But as the New York Times story makes clear, without Microsoft's continuing leadership and engagement, civil society will remain at risk of selective prosecution. We have recommended that Microsoft join with Human Rights First to host consultations with Russian civil society for the purpose of obtaining their insights on the best way forward.

Two years ago, Human Rights First joined with Microsoft and other stakeholders to launch theGlobal Network Initiative. We believed that companies could not "go it alone" in confronting government demands to curb online speech. Russia is not alone in using technology and selective prosecutions to crack down on civil society. We now know that these threats can come from many places, and that companies need to work in partnership with civil society to address them.

 

 

Google Censorship Disclosure Helps Quantify a Troubling Trend -- and Underscores the Need for Action

What do Australia, Brazil, India, the United States and Britain have in common? This week, Google named each of these nations among the list of countries that most often contact it with requests for content removal and user data. Google's disclosure is a bold step towards quantifying this trend. Whether it leads to greater protection of user privacy and free expression on the Internet will depend on the policies that guide the companies' responses to these government requests. But for now this move should prompt other companies to consider how to be more transparent about the censorship restrictions they face.

Google's decision to release this information reveals with greater granularity what internet service providers have been saying for years - that governments are increasingly demanding censorship of Internet content and information about users.

As its new interactive map illustrates, this trend is global and affects users from nations with diverse political and socio-economic landscapes. Google's new tool also reveals that for some governments - notably China - mere disclosure of the requests is also subject to censorship. Most importantly, this information illustrates the need for collaborative approaches to the growing problem of Internet censorship. It is a problem that affects us all. As Secretary of State Clinton observed in her landmark speech on Internet freedom, this is about the kind of world we live in and whether all its citizens will have equal, unfettered access to information.

Google's censorship disclosure tool is far from perfect, as the company makes clear. The data is one dimensional and incomplete. There is no context provided and requests are aggregated rather than sourced to the relevant authority. That makes it difficult to compare countries or to draw useful conclusions, including about why Google has complied with such requests in the majority of instances. In addition, the data for some governments is either unavailable or subject to national legal restrictions on disclosure. Even so, Google deserves praise for its willingness to release the data that it has and to help all of us understand the kinds of challenges the company is facing every day.

The burning question - the one most everyone wants to know - is which governments make the most intrusive demands on Internet freedom and what that means for its citizens. We also want to know how companies assess these requests and respond and what those responses mean for users. It is this challenge that has led Human Rights First to join with Google and other companies to work toward greater transparency and shared solutions to Internet censorship and surveillance. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multistakeholder effort to address threats to Internet freedom, exists to help companies move from information gathering to assessment and action.

Though the GNI is at the beginning stages of implementation, it's headed in the right direction. We urge other companies in this sector to join this crucial effort to help defend Internet freedom.

This is a fight we intend to win and it's one that requires each of us to take a stand now.

Internet Freedom - The Fight is On

A student at an American university Googles "Tiananmen Square" from her dorm room. Among the hundreds of hits that will surface are photographs and reports stemming from the 1989 protest that followed the death of Chinese pro-democracy official Hu Yaobang. Scrolling down, she will learn that Chinese troops killed hundreds of protesters who were gathered in Tiananmen Square to voice their support for democracy and call for an end to government corruption. 

Halfway around the world, when a Chinese student sits down at her computer and conducts the same Google search, her results will tell a much different story about Tiananmen Square. She will not find information about the massacre that occurred in 1989. Instead, she will view photos depicting this beautiful plaza and learn that Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world. 

This example demonstrates the great divide between Internet users in the United States and users in China, Iran, Eqypt, Venezuela, Russia and other nations that censor access to information on the web. These governments say they restrict Internet freedom to protect their citizens and combat problems such as pornography, terrorism and hate speech. These problems are real, but as Secretary of State Clinton recognized in her speech on Internet freedom, "these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes." 

Last December, Google reportedly became aware that its networks, as well as the networks of 20 other companies, were the target of Chinese hackers. Google further determined that its Gmail accounts were not secure and that human rights activists in China were being targeted. According to published reports, those events proved to be the last straw for Google, which has struggled to maintain its delicate relationship with the Chinese government since its decision in 2006 to offer a censored version of its search engine there. Though Google has always known that government censorship would be a key condition for tapping into China's lucrative market, the company had hoped its investment might lead to a more open society. Instead, China has continued to enforce a parallel, closed Internet system that conflicts with the core values of Google and many of the global companies that continue to operate in China. When the Chinese government refused to work with Google to address these important human rights concerns, Google apparently concluded it had no option but to shut down its search operation in China. 

Last week, GoDaddy.com followed Google's example and announced that it would no longer register domain names in China. Importantly, GoDaddy made public the Chinese government's insistence that it receive extensive user information as a condition of domain name registration. It also announced that China's demands for user information had made it impossible for GoDaddy to continue to operate in China without violating its core corporate principles.

Unlike users in China, Google's users in Hong Kong enjoy unfettered Internet access -- for now. But Google's announcement that it will redirect users in China to its search engine in Hong Kong could create problems for the company's operations there. Though it remains to be seen whether China will seek to disrupt Google's services in Hong Kong, it is clear that China will not abandon its model of a closed Internet and will continue to export its model to other like minded governments with which it shares strategic and commercial ties. 

Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have joined the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative created to address threats to Internet freedom. Working closely with other GNI members, these corporate pioneers already have acknowledged publicly that Internet freedom and user privacy are important human rights that transcend political beliefs and boundaries. The Global Network Initiative offers those companies, and all companies in the ICT industry, a way to work collaboratively to devise effective strategies for resisting government threats to freedom of expression and privacy and ensuring respect for human rights in their global operations.

The stakes in this fight are clear. All ICT companies -- regardless of where they may operate today -- should care deeply about what happens to Google and GoDaddy in the months ahead. Next time, other ICT companies could be targeted by government censorship, surveillance or hacking in their operations around the world. 

In withdrawing from China, Google and GoDaddy have put a spotlight on the high stakes of the global battle for Internet freedom. For the companies, it's about market access and commercial expansion into the developing world. For both the companies and their users, it's also about the quality and integrity of the services available. This fight will require companies, investors, academics and non-governmental organizations that care about the human rights of Internet freedom and privacy, and countries around the world, to band together in support of Internet access to all, for all.

Protecting Refugees: an American Commitment and Tradition

 

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, a landmark piece of legislation that changed the U.S. approach to refugee protection by creating the legal status of asylum and a formal process for resettling refugees from around the world. It affirmed the U.S. commitment to providing refuge to victims of religious, political and other forms of persecution.

Every day at Human Rights First we see up close the ways in which the Refugee Act makes a difference in the lives of individual refugees. There is no more concrete reflection of the Refugee Act's achievements than seeing refugees and their families find safe haven in the United States.

Watch our video highlighting what this Act meant - including how it helped one of our clients restart his life.

While the last 30 years has seen much progress in protecting refugees fleeing persecution, we also have seen in our work at Human Rights First where the United States has at times faltered in it its commitment - interdicting Haitians at sea without adequate protection safeguards, allowing political preferences to undermine the objectivity of asylum adjudications in the 1980s, and nearly shutting down the resettlement system in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Particularly in the last fifteen years, a barrage of new laws, policies and legal interpretations have undermined the institution of asylum in the United States and led this country to deny asylum or other protection to victims of persecution. Detention has escalated dramatically, and refugees with well founded fears of persecution are barred from asylum due to a filing deadline that limits access to asylum.

We can do better. Our history as a country of refugees, our tradition as a safe haven and beacon of hope for the persecuted, and our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol all tell us we must do better.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the signing of the act, Human Rights First held a symposiumbringing together policymakers and experts in U.S. refugee and asylum law to discuss how we can overcome the current challenges in the U.S. refugee resettlement and asylum systems. It was an inspiring meeting that gave me hope for future reform.

This week we have seen movement: Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Carl Levin (D-MI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Daniel Akaka (D-HI) have introduced the Refugee Protection Act of 2010 (S. 3113), legislation designed to strengthen America's commitment to protecting refugees by repairing many of the most severe problems in the U.S. refugee and asylum systems. Human Rights First commends these Senators for their leadership. You can demonstrate your support for their efforts here.

Millions of Americans are here today because at some point they or their parents - or grandparents - had to flee from oppression or persecution and were either granted asylum or resettled as refugees here in the United States. After reflecting on the last 30 years since this law was passed, we have a lot to be proud of, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Together, we can ensure that our nation lives up to the promise of the Refugee Act.

 

Human Rights Defenders at the White House

Human Rights activists from more than 25 countries gathered in Washington last week for a meeting designed to mobilize greater support for those struggling to advance respect for basic freedoms in fragile new democracies and repressive authoritarian states. They had a packed agenda, including a meeting with President Obama and senior National Security Council staff at the White House.

Participants in last Thursday's meeting at the White House were pleased to meet a president who expressed support and solidarity with their concerns, rather than trying to ban their activities, throw them in prison, or worse. For many of the human rights activists participating in the Human Rights Summit, a sympathetic ear, offers of support and a candid exchange of views are the last things they expect from their own governments. Many of them remarked on this contrast: at home, they are pushed away, obstructed, insulted and sometimes attacked by their governments; but here in the United States they were welcomed to the White House and listened to. They will leave having been encouraged and inspired by their warm reception, and it will give them strength and, in some cases, much-needed protection as they return to their work in countries like Russia, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Belarus where repression is mounting and basic freedoms are under attack.

Activists from Indonesia who attended were especially appreciative of the opportunity to brief President Obama before his visit there next month, and they were able to make plans for the President to meet with representatives of independent civil society organizations while he is there, a key component of the administration's strategy for engaging with human rights activists around the world.

All of the participants I have spoken with since the meeting were appreciative of the President's sincerity and the seriousness with which he and his staff engaged with the challenging issues of upholding basic freedoms in a world where principles like freedom of expression are under threat from authoritarian states and a variety of non-state actors. They came away reassured that they have friends in the White House.

As a U.S.-based human rights organization, Human Rights First sees pressing the U.S. government to exercise global leadership on human rights as one of our main jobs. That's what we did at the White House last week. The fact that the President met with our group and spent so much time with us is an indication of the priority he places on these issues. 
The President and other senior administration officials have said many times that they wish to be judged not by their rhetoric, but by their results. We heard this same pledge in our meeting with the President. and we think it is the right thing for our government to say. It is certainly the expectation of Summit participants that the President's words will be backed by actions that will help to improve human rights conditions in their countries. That is why we have been working on producing a Plan of Action, part of which will include direct recommendations to the U.S. government as a product of the Human Rights Summit. We and all the participants will be ready to work in partnership with the U.S. government, other governments and international organizations to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide. That way, in the future, we will have positive results to celebrate together.

Clinton's Speech on Internet Freedom: A Turning Point for Freedom of Expression

Secretary Clinton, in a live address this morning at the Newseum, marked a major turning point for promoting freedom of expression, and made clear the Obama Administration's intent to put into practice its previously stated commitment to Internet freedom - a welcome announcement.

New technology demands new thinking about how companies and governments can each work to protect freedom. Both have a part to play. As last week's news about censorship of Google in China makes clear, it is vitally important that companies take action to promote respect for freedom of expression and privacy. But, as Secretary Clinton stated in her speech, companies need the support of their governments to fight the repressive censorship and surveillance practices that threaten Internet freedom across the globe.

Secretary Clinton assured us that she will work across all sectors of the U.S. government to promote Internet freedom abroad, and she will coordinate with other governments to address repressive policies and programs that limit freedom of expression and privacy. She also acknowledged the work of the Global Network Initiative as another tool for addressing these concerns. The Global Network Initiative, in which Human Rights First continues to play a leading role, provides invaluable guidance and support for technology companies that are often forced to navigate difficult waters as they work to protect freedom of expression and privacy for hundreds of millions of Internet users around the world.

Human Rights First is encouraged by the Secretary's announcement and stands ready to continues its work with the GNI and to support the Administration's efforts to make Internet freedom a diplomatic priority. Read our press release following the speech.

The voices of human rights defenders are among the first to be silenced by repressive Internet policies. I hope that today's announcement leads to greater protection for these brave men and women, and takes the United States' human rights agenda into the 21st century.

What Secretary Clinton Can Do to Support Internet Freedom

Tomorrow, in her planned speech at the Newseum, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the opportunity to explain what the Administration's previously stated commitments to Internet freedom mean in practice. Here are three immediate actions she could announce that would make clear that protecting freedom of expression on the Internet is a priority for the United States government:

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