WASHINGTON, September 5, 2019 – In the context of the increasing scrutiny faced by global technology and internet companies, the think tank New America has taken a stab at producing a comprehensive overview of how these powerful and influential global companies address and respect users’ privacy, transparency and freedom of expression.
Many of the companies listed on New America’s Ranking Digital Rights Index are “unaccountable sovereigns of cyberspace,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the project, in an interview. Based off the principles of the Global Network Initiative, RDR’s goal was to establish standards based on the challenges governments have created with censorship and surveillance.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, called last year for a new “Contract for the Web,” in order to rebuild trust in the web and increase internet access on fair and affordable terms.
The comes as many are questioning the future of the internet. Is it still – or was it ever – a force for democratization?. Although the internet has helped people circumvent traditional barriers to hold governments and corporations accountable for their actions, it has also contributed increasing vulnerability to mass surveillance, disinformation, censorship and much more.
RDR aims to assist in that endeavor. As the number of internet users increases, global internet freedom has suffered an overall decline. The internet’s growth has provided more insight to issues concerning democracy and freedom of expression, yet practices of worldwide corporations have also hindered them.
Evaluating 12 tech company and 12 internet companies
The 2019 index evaluated 24 of these companies, based on their disclosure of commitments, policies, and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy. The study focused on three key areas: privacy, expression and governance. These areas had their own respective indicators, which went into depth on how each company abided or failed to abide by the guidelines.
Additionally, the companies were grouped and graded within two categories: Internet and mobile ecosystem (think consumer electronics and big tech), and telecommunications/broadband providers.
Because some companies, such as Google and Apple, also produce software and devices, the study combined internet and mobile ecosystem firms. All the companies were evaluated with their respective subsidiaries.
The report’s results are described as a benchmark of how well companies are meeting their responsibility to respect users’ rights. It also provided recommendations ICT companies should take to uphold the principles of free internet.
Weaknesses exposed in even high-ranking companies
Even the supposedly highest-ranking companies were found lacking in some critical areas. This year, Microsoft earned first place among internet and mobile ecosystem companies, whereas Madrid-based Telefónica lead the way with telecom firms. However, their respective total scores were only above average on a 100-point scale: 62 and 57 percent.
Microsoft’s result is primarily due to an 85 percent score in governance, indicating that it disclosed more about its commitments and policies affecting users’ human rights than all other ranked companies. It scored moderately well for freedom of expression and privacy, rounding up to 55 and 59 percent.
Telefónica’s governance scored an astronomical 94 percent, the highest value of any other company in the three categories. On the other hand, its freedom of expression and privacy rankings were 47 and 49 percent, slightly below average.
It comes as no surprise that some companies received low scores, such as China’s Baidu and Tencent services as well as Russia’s Mail.ru. As they are based in countries with highly restrictive political systems, they are unable to commit to privacy and free expression as human rights.
The big tech giants in America received mixed results
On the other hand, other major corporations, including some prominent members of the “GAFA” faction, received mixed results. Apple is typically highly regarded for its privacy approach, yet its privacy ranking only totaled up to 58 percent while scoring poorly in other categories.
Facebook’s 78 percent governance score resulted from its clear commitment to protect human rights and strong management oversight. However, the social media giant was insufficient about disclosing due diligence efforts and had one of the lowest scores of any company in the index for its appeal mechanisms. Lack of disclosure about content and account restriction as well as poor network management and shutdown procedures earned Facebook a below average freedom of expression ranking.
Samsung, one of the leading producers in personal electronics, scored poorly in all three categories. It received the second lowest score of all internet and mobile ecosystem companies in the privacy category. Additionally, South Korean companies are required by law to provide grievance and remedy mechanisms for freedom of expression and privacy complaints. Samsung, however, failed to disclose any information about its mechanisms.
Amazon, one of the biggest tech giants, has yet to be included in the RDR Index, although MacKinnon said it will be in the near future. The products and services that Amazon provides are different enough from the other companies in the ranking that the methodology is not developed enough to support it.
Future indices would have to include more indicators, she said. RDR would also have to formulate a consensus from technical experts as well as human rights communities on what companies need to do to improve their standards.
Privacy grades are uniformly low
Even though these 24 companies operate differently, the most striking result is that none of them received excellent privacy grades. The two frontrunners in each group, Microsoft and Telefónica, earned scores that were average at best. Even Deutsch Telekom, which went above and beyond the standard of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation – and received the highest privacy score in the index – earned 60 percent.
Simply put, corporations have not been prioritizing privacy, MacKinnon said. Everyone should be concerned about how these companies are conduits for information, yet they are still not disclosing enough.
Even the GDPR, she said, is not effective enough in enforcing better privacy practices. Companies are mainly required to inform regulators what they are doing. Consumers, on the other hand, don’t necessarily know more about company practices.
It’s also unclear, MacKinnon said, if U.S. multinationals that must abide by the GDPR perform better overall, because RDR evaluates the work they do on the domestic level.
Theoretically it is possible for an entity to reach a near “perfect” privacy score on the Index, she said. However, it’s unlikely that the companies on the evaluation list could succeed in doing so. Countries with more stringent political systems may not allow their companies to publicize the data found in RDR. On the other hand, jurisdictions with more liberal policies will more likely incentivize human rights assessments.
Perhaps as RDR’s methodology continues to develop, companies may start to display more profound results in privacy and freedom of expression. Still, the main goal of the Index, MacKinnon said, is to pick a series of companies with a high global reach and apply international human rights standards to their products and services.
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