With more than a billion users, Facebook is not only the biggest global social network but also an increasingly important forum for journalists. In some repressive countries it has even served as a publishing platform for journalists whose newspapers or news websites have been closed down. That is why journalists and bloggers should note today’s news that after a year of standing on the threshold, Facebook has decided to step inside the Global Network Initiative tent.
There they’ll find competitors Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo huddled with human rights defenders and ethical investors trying to work through some of the thorny challenges to freedom of expression and user privacy posed by powerful political and commercial interests worldwide.
Facebook held nonrenewable “observer status” with GNI for the past year and had to decide this month whether to publicly commit to GNI principles or walk away.
One of the biggest hurdles for any corporation joining the initiative is the opening up of its inner workings to outside scrutiny. Companies must agree to allow independent assessors to evaluate regularly whether they have put in place systems to uphold GNI principles and whether those systems are working. This would entail, for example, examining how a company handled a demand from a government for information about a user; did it simply hand over that information or did it push back? Much of the impetus to create GNI came after Yahoo provided information to the Chinese authorities which helped them identify reporter Shi Tao as the source of a story that led to his imprisonment.
The three founding companies mentioned above are already deeply into the assessment process. Facebook will not begin it assessment until 2015.
[CPJ is part of GNI, and Robert Mahoney is a GNI board member.]