This press release is actually big news. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Vodafone have been working very hard — alongside academics and NGOs — to produce a set of common principles guiding company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, but the process is headed in exactly the right direction, with leadership from BSR (Dunstan Hope & Aron Cramer), CDT (Leslie Harris), and many other good people. The companies should be applauded for taking this big, public step forward, as should the NGOs, academics, shareholders groups, and others who are committed to working shoulder-to-shoulder with them to get it right. Michael Samway of Yahoo! has a fine blog post on the topic here. Rebecca MacKinoon, always all over this issue, weighs in, too.
I am firmly of the view that this problem — of multinational corporations being required, as a matter of law or otherwise, to carry out censorship and surveillance at the behest of states — would best be solved by concerted action of the sort announced today, rather than through legislation as a first pass. One example of such proposed legislation is the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 (as described here by RMack), which has recently been reintroduced by Rep. Smith. GOFA has noble ends, but is not the best means. The proposed bill would make it nearly impossible for US technology firms to compete in markets like China. If an industry code of conduct were to emerge that has real bite to it, and where NGOs and investors and academics are on hand to ensure that signatory companies live up to it, the results could be far better. And over time, it might well make sense to redact the global industry agreement into law or a treaty to ensure that it is enforceable, evolves over time, and has true public oversight.
For our part, we at the Berkman Center have been proud to have worked with our colleagues on the OpenNet Initiative, as well as the University of California-Berkeley (Xiao Qiang, Deirdre Mulligan, Roxanna Altholz), the University of St. Gallen (Urs Gasser), and the Oxford Internet Institute (JZ!), among others, as participants in earlier iterations of this process, which we called the OpenNet Consensus. Friendly funders from the Open Society Institute (Vera Franz) and the MacArthur Foundation (John Bracken) have stepped up, early on, to support various NGO/academic players in this subject matter area, such as the ONI and the ONC.
The initial participants in this now-public next phase of the process include:
# Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School
# Boston Common Asset Management
# Business for Social Responsibility (Facilitator)
# Calvert Group
# Center for Democracy and Technology (Facilitator)
# Committee to Protect Journalists
# Domini Social Investments LLC
# Electronic Frontier Foundation
# Enterprise Privacy Group
# F&C Asset Management
# Google, Inc.
# Human Rights First
# Human Rights in China
# Human Rights Watch
# International Business Leaders Forum
# International Council on Human Rights Policy
# Reporters Without Borders
# Trillium Asset Management
# United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on business & human rights (Observer status)
# University of California, Berkeley School of Law-Boalt Hall
# Yahoo! Inc.