Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Susan Morgan
Executive Director - Global Network Initiative


Chairman Smith, Co-Chairman Cardin, I wish to thank you and the Members of the

Helsinki Commission for conducting this briefing and for the opportunity to address the

work of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in protecting and advancing freedom of

expression and privacy rights in information and communication technologies (ICTs).

GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including

human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a

collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the

ICT sector.

GNI is founded upon Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy that all its

participants commit to uphold, rooted in international human rights standards. The

Principles provide high-level guidance and are accompanied by Implementation

Guidelines that set out in greater detail how companies put our Principles into practice.

GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related

to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world.

Alongside our framework of Principles we employ a confidential, collaborative, and

accountable approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the

ICT sector.


Accountability is at the core of GNI, which builds upon similar efforts in other sectors that

have come under scrutiny with regard to human rights issues. Member companies

commit to a process of independent assessment of how they are implementing GNI’s

Principles. In 2012, GNI completed the world’s first independent assessment of

technology companies’ policies and procedures for responding to government requests

affecting free speech and privacy. The assessments of founding companies Google,

Microsoft, and Yahoo! indicated the companies have made progress in adopting policies

and procedures for dealing with government requests that could threaten the freedom of

expression and privacy rights of users.

Each company’s assessment produced different recommendations, but the types of

recommendations made for the companies to consider include: engaging more directly

with human rights groups and experts when conducting risk assessments; improving the

sharing of information to help drive public policy engagement with governments; and

documenting the process for conducting human rights impact assessments, updating it

as new policy or legislative developments are identified. These assessments focused on

the existence of policies and procedures that companies have adopted to implement the

GNI Principles. The next and final phase of the assessment process will examine how

these policies and procedures are deployed in practice.

The breadth and expertise of GNI’s diverse membership gives our collective voice

authority when it comes to public policy affecting rights to free expression and privacy

online. In 2012, GNI spoke out on issues of concern in key countries around the world,

and engaged with international institutions to promote the adoption of laws, policies, and

practices that advance freedom of expression and privacy. In Pakistan, for example, GNI

worked with international and Pakistani civil society organizations to warn companies of

the human rights implications of responding to a Request for Proposals to build a new

system for Internet filtering and blocking. GNI member company Websense was the first

to speak out and make a commitment not to submit a response to the proposal. Other

companies including Cisco, Sandvine, Verizon, and McAfee also made public

commitments not to respond and the government reversed course on this particular


GNI has taken some important steps to increase its global reach, gaining new members

from six countries in the past year. New members include academic organizations,

investors, and civil society members from Argentina, Denmark, India, Sweden, the

United Kingdom and the United States. Two new companies, Evoca and Websense,

joined in 2011, the first new companies to join GNI since the formation of the initiative.

The addition of observer companies Facebook and Afilias has also contributed to

increasing the breadth of the companies working with us.

Because the free expression and privacy issues facing technology companies are

constantly changing, GNI provides opportunities for its members to work through

complex issues with other participants in a safe, confidential space. GNI members

regularly meet to discuss the risks in particular countries, new legislative and regulatory

developments, as well as to discuss best practices for company human rights due


In June 2012, GNI hosted its first Annual Learning Forum in Washington DC, bringing

together companies, civil society organizations, investors and academics both inside

GNI and not to discuss freedom of expression and privacy issues. There GNI presented

a new report, “Digital Freedoms in International Law: Practical Steps to Protect Human

Rights Online,” co-authored by Dr. Ian Brown and Professor Douwe Korff, which

examines the challenges facing governments and technology companies as they

balance rights to expression and privacy with law enforcement and national security


Challenges facing the technology sector

The catalytic role that technology has played in support of democratic aspirations around

the world is undeniable, but so too are its uses by governments to aid in the surveillance

and suppression of rights. Increasing government interest in controlling ICT is illustrated

by the proposal for code of conduct on information security put forward at the UN

General Assembly by China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as proposals in

advance of the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in


Although commonly associated with China’s sophisticated censorship architecture or

Mubarak’s mass shutdown of the Internet during Egypt’s revolution, these issues are by

no means limited to autocracies. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Draft

Communications Data Bill (C8359), while pursuing legitimate law enforcement

objectives, has worrying aspects to it, and could give authoritarian regimes justification

for their own approach. It is critically important that as democracies address some of the

challenges they face they do this in a way that sees legislation and policies developed

that would serve as a worthy model for other countries to adopt.

Companies are facing new threats from governments in many markets that take

increasingly diverse and complex forms. In Thailand, the troubling conviction of

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of the online forum Prachathai, for not moving

quickly enough to remove content posted by users illustrates the serious harm that

occurs when companies are held liable for content uploaded or sent by users. In Russia,

new laws ostensibly aimed at curbing extremism may enable the widespread blocking of

websites for the purpose of political suppression. Some countries are considering

measures to require the location of data centers in country to control access to user

data, as was proposed in Vietnam. Finally, some states continue to engage in the

shutdown of communications networks and blocking of selected websites, as was

recently the case in Tajikistan.

With increasing government interest in communications technologies, companies in the

ICT sector can find themselves caught between government requests for information,

and their responsibility to respect the human rights of their users. The resulting ethical

questions are becoming increasingly complex and require proactive strategies to

anticipate and address human rights risks. The role of GNI is to provide a platform for

developing these strategies, and to allow companies to credibly demonstrate their

commitment to human rights.


The challenges of navigating the nexus of human rights and technology are too

complicated for any single company to manage alone. GNI’s experience demonstrates

that even the fiercest of commercial competitors can work together when it comes to

human rights. These efforts are further multiplied by the informed expertise of other

stakeholders, including human rights organizations active on-the-ground in repressive

regimes, investors interested in encouraging companies to respect the rights of their

users while operating in diverse and challenging markets, and academic researchers

whose findings and analysis enhances understanding of human rights issues in the ICT


GNI continues to pursue dialogue with companies across ICT sector, including with

telecommunications firms, as the time is now right to address issues in this part of the


By working together, rights-respecting companies have an opportunity to both set a

global standard for how companies can responsibly manage government requests

impacting free expression and privacy rights, but also collectively engage with those

governments to promote the rule of law and the adoption of laws, policies and practices

that protect, respect, and fulfill rights to free expression and privacy.