CPJ joins initiative to protect online freedoms

Today a group of Web companies, human rights organizations, academics, and investors seeded the ground for what they hope will be greater protection for online users in Internet-restricting countries. Whether the Global Network Initiative grows into an effective shield for online journalists and bloggers will depend on the implementation of the voluntary principles that lie at is heart. 

These principles are rooted in international human rights law and set a standard for companies already operating in or planning to enter markets where freedom of expression is under attack. The companies in the initiative are Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. 

CPJ joined the talks at the outset nearly two years ago in the spirit of exploring any avenue that could help the growing but increasingly threatened online journalism community from China to Morocco. As technology has enabled individual journalists to circumvent traditional state controls on the distribution of news through licensing and the ownership of broadcast and print equipment, governments have become more adept at turning that technology against them. Censorship and filtering of the Internet are growing exponentially along with surveillance and the mining of user data.

This point was brought home to the public dramatically in 2005 when Chinese journalist Shi Tao was handed a 10-year jail sentence for e-mailing notes on a directive issued by China’s Propaganda Department to an overseas news Web site. He was identified from information about his e-mail account supplied to the authorities by Yahoo.

So an obvious question for press freedom advocates is: Will the initiative prevent another Shi Tao? The simple answer is no, there can be no such guarantees. A repressive government can still censor or jail. That has led the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders to conclude that a legal framework along the lines of the proposed 2006 Global Online Information Act (GOFA) is the best option.

Indeed, one of the concerns of nongovernmental organizations at the outset of the process was that companies were looking for a fig leaf voluntary agreement in the face of GOFA. The bill, which has not come to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote, seeks to require U.S.-headquartered technology corporations to respect the right to freedom of expression and user privacy across their global operations. Some of the NGOs in the initiative, including CPJ, have backed GOFA while simultaneously pursuing the voluntary track. CPJ believes that if companies voluntarily agree to respect human rights globally and be evaluated on their performance, then that is a better outcome than legislation. But GOFA is still on the table.

Under the initiative, the companies have committed to integrate human rights impact assessments into their planning and decision-making. They have agreed to follow a set of procedures to push back when faced with a government demand that violates the principles. And, they will have their performance and degree of compliance with the principles evaluated by an independent assessor. This outside scrutiny is essential if the whole process is to have credibility. It is also vital that the initiative actively recruit new members from developing economies and from the telecommunications sector if it is to be truly global.

The initiative does not have all the teeth some of us would have wished. But it is a start. It is now up to the human rights and press freedom advocates, the socially responsible investors, academics, and technology leaders who have signed on to the principles to ensure that they are implemented rigorously and effectively.