Internet giants submit to external free expression scrutiny

Journalists and bloggers in authoritarian countries have their work cut out thwarting governments that try to restrict their writing and reporting. The last thing they need to worry about is the provider of their publication platform helping authorities with censorship or surveillance. Cue the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a voluntary grouping of Internet companies, freedom of expression groups, progressive investors, and academics. 

Since its launch four years ago, the GNI has made only slow and fitful progress in ensuring that companies in the information, communications, and technology sectors that now make up the backbone of news distribution protect the rights to free expression and privacy of their users.

That’s why the launch of GNI’s second annual report today at an event in Sweden is important. It contains the results of the first independent external assessment of the three founder companies’ — Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google — capacity to protect freedom of expression in the face of government demands that could restrict it. As CPJ’s representative to GNI, I was part of the negotiations that started back in 2006 and led to today’s announcement. Six years ago the idea that the titans of the Internet would open up their inner workings to outside scrutiny seemed a stretch.

Of course, there is still much more to do. The current evaluation checked only that the companies had put in place the policies and processes to implement GNI’s principles. Next year the auditors will examine how the companies actually applied the policies in real life. That will be the acid test for public credibility.

When GNI first launched, CPJ hailed it as a first step on a long road. Today is a second step on that path, and two steps, arguably, constitute walking.