When the first mass-produced cars hit the road in the late 1890s and early 1900s, they lacked modern-day staples like turn signals, seat belts, and airbags. Policies to address drunken driving or fuel emission standards had yet to emerge (though as early as 1906, New Jersey outlawed driving while intoxicated). Crash safety testing wasn’t a mainstream practice in the United States until the 1970s.
However, as the car transformed from luxury good to a daily necessity, society had to figure out how that technology fit into everyday life. People had to learn how to use cars effectively, and a system of licensing drivers emerged. Policymakers sought to minimize the harm caused by cars and passed laws requiring vehicles to meet certain standards. And car companies considered the interests of passengers as they innovated their products.
Just as the automobile revolutionized human transportation, over the past two decades, the rise of Internet and mobile technology has revolutionized human communication. We can stay in touch with far-flung friends and family, run businesses remotely, and look up information instantly. But here, too, we need to figure out how this technology can make life more, not less, fair. Marketers can track the websites we browse, phone companies can monitor our location, social media companies can restrict the content we see, and governments have unprecedented abilities to censor and surveil their people. We’re still figuring out how to reconcile the benefits with these challenges.
Just as the automobile revolutionized human transportation, over the past two decades, the rise of Internet and mobile technology has revolutionized human communication.
I’m not suggesting that we should replicate our response to automobiles. The answer, after all, does not lie in issuing licenses to surf the Web or piling regulations on companies. I am saying, however, that everyone—individuals, policymakers, activists, journalists, researchers, investors, and company employees—has a role to play in ensuring that digital technology evolves in a way that aligns with our values, which include the universal human rights of freedom of expression and privacy. For example, parents, teachers, librarians, and others at public service organizations are all involved in an effort to consider how to teach digital literacy skills to new Internet users. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted strong net neutrality protections to ensure that everyone has equitable access to the Web. And technology companies have taken steps to encrypt their users’ data.
These examples reflect efforts by different sectors of society to shape how digital technology fits into our lives. But such steps remain controversial as we work to figure out who should be held accountable for what when it comes to respecting human rights online. This is a particularly challenging task for technology companies. Users want innovative, easy-to-use products and services. Shareholders expect a return on their investment. Governments want companies’ help in enforcing laws and protecting citizens. However, all businesses, including those in the technology sector, share a responsibility to respect human rights.
As a first step, we need someone to shine a light on best practices. That's where we stepped in with Ranking Digital Rights. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a research analyst with RDR.) Over the past three years, the Ranking Digital Rights project has developed a framework to evaluate technology companies on their disclosed commitments, policies, practices related to freedom of expression, and privacy.
In our inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, which examines 16 of the world’s largest Internet and telecommunications companies, we found no winners when it comes to corporate commitments to respect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. Among Internet companies, Google scored highest with 65 percent while the United Kingdom-based Vodafone scored highest among telecommunications companies with 54 percent. Overall, only six companies scored at least 50 percent, and nearly half of the companies scored below 25 percent, displaying a serious deficit of respect for users’ rights.
“The top-scoring company is only 65 percent. So if this were a test, they’d be getting a D in school,” said our director, Rebecca MacKinnon, at an index launch event, “But ... this is a diagnostic test; this is not a certification. This is a test you take at the start of the class to figure out where everybody stands, and then we can all get to work and figure out how we can all improve.”
The index results identify emerging standard practices and highlight where improvement is needed. For example, all companies in the index publish publicly available terms of service documents, and these documents provide at least some information about company rules to restrict content or limit people’s ability to access the service. However, no companies provide any information about the volume of actions they take to enforce these rules.
These findings are meant to inform conversations about standards that companies across the industry can follow.
Further, while all companies except the French telecommunications firm Orange and the email and chat services of the Russian Internet company Mail.ru publish publicly available privacy policies, these policies do not clearly explain what user information companies collect. Nor do they articulate how they collect and use this information, with whom and under what circumstances companies share this information, whether people have any control over this collection or sharing, and how long companies keep this user information.
These findings are meant to inform conversations about standards that companies across the industry can follow. Fortunately, companies have already started to make changes. Since the index data were finalized, Microsoft published its first transparency report that disclosed data about requests it received to restrict content. Facebook updated its government requests report to specify that the report includes requests pertaining to several Facebook services (e.g., Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp); the previous lack of clarity here lost the company points in the index.
RDR aims for the index to be an annual ranking that spurs companies to improve their policies and practices, and that enables the public to document change over time. By providing metrics to measure company disclosures related to digital rights, the index is one step toward fostering an ecosystem of corporate accountability in the technology industry, something many organizations are addressing. While having industry standards is not a panacea—consider that in some cases technology companies face legal barriers to disclosing information related to freedom of expression and privacy concerns—it remains an integral component in ensuring that technology progresses in alignment with society’s best interests.
Digital technologies—and the companies that design them—remain poised to play a greater role in our everyday lives. We must make sure these products and services enhance, rather than hinder, our ability to express ourselves and maintain our privacy as we learn how to fit them into our everyday lives.
This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.