Facebook recently announced its decision to join the Global Network Initiative, a collaboration of Internet companies committed to advancing freedom of expression and privacy online. LSE’s Alexandra Kulikova considers what membership may entail for the social media giant, and asks whether Facebook’s commitment to GNI’s principles will achieve more than simply enhancing the company’s image.
On 22 May Facebook announced its decision to join the Global Network Initiative (GNI) after having held observer status for a year. The decision to sign up to the GNI principles on freedom of expression and privacy has been praised by GNI and other human rights organisation as a commitment to the freedom of speech and privacy.
Facebook is the sixth technology company to join the GNI since it was founded in 2008 by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo after a series of censorship and privacy scandals involving tech companies caving to authoritarian regimes. This is the next big step since Evoca and WebSense signed up in 2011. What signals does this move send after a long pause in the GNI enlargement? And what implications does it have for Facebook and the big technology companies who are still on the fence?
The GNI press-release quotes Elliot Schrage, Facebook Vice President of Communications and Public Policy, as saying that ‘advancing human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to communicate freely, is core to our mission of making the world more open and connected.’ The company is ‘pleased to join GNI and contribute to its efforts to shed a spotlight on government practices that threaten the economic, social, and political benefits the Internet provides’.
On the face of it, the decision clearly enhances Facebook’s image on privacy issues and data protection. Mark Zukerberg is personally advocating the cause, which has been challenging given that the idea of Facebook at its core is to be a platform for expressing information and personal details about its users. These efforts should help build – or restore – confidence and trust with users who may still be only vaguely aware of the privacy risks and rights they hold. At the same time this is a signal of readiness for self-scrutiny coming from a trend-setter to industry peers. Twitter or Amazon, who have not yet joined the club, may follow and pursue their own transparency policies. The PR effect, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
A few years ago some disappointment with GNI’s scarce membership and uncertain viability triggered claims that it will always be shunned by the majority of digital giants as an unwieldy mechanism with questionable legitimacy and benefits for the members. Today GNI as an attempt at self-regulation for Internet companies seems to be gaining more relevance due to increased efforts from more governments to force websites to comply with local security legislation. Pressure from governments has been increasing, both in the traditionally rigid in cyberspace governance like China, as well as in Western democracies (see MPP blog on Google transparency report). The question remains whether an umbrella human rights initiative can serve its current and future industry members while also respecting country-specific legislation.
On the compliance side, we shouldn’t expect an ethical revolution overnight at Facebook. In fact, the GNI’s founding companies have only just announced last year the results of the first stage of their current practices assessment and Facebook wouldn’t undergo the process till 2015. This leaves it with a lot of flexibility in terms of aligning its internal policies to the GNI principles. The company was extensively praised in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (a GNI member) recent report for having embarked this year on a few specific policy lines to protect users’ data and freedom of speech rights: e.g. publishing guidelines for law enforcement, fighting for users’ privacy in congress, and requiring a warrant for content disclosure. However, Facebook may now be expected to release its own transparency report, to start informing its users of requests of their data by governments, and to fight for users’ privacy in court.
Meanwhile, the issue one might want to observe is whether joining the club is a genuine commitment on the part of Facebook to protect its users’ rights online, or simply a symbolic act of associating itself with the noble principles and objectives of a possibly toothless organisation that lacks enforcement power. Perhaps the next telling sign will be whether its peers follow suit.