10/30/2008 01:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Global Network Initiative Takes Off

This week, a diverse coalition of leading information and communications companies, major human rights organizations, academics, investors and technology leaders launched the Global Network Initiative. The initiative seeks to help participating companies navigate a global and increasingly complex set of governmental practices and laws that infringe on the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users. Just as important, the initiative formalizes and pushes forward collaboration among diverse stakeholders to promote the rule of law and the adoption of public policies that can advance core human rights on the global network. By committing to the Initiative, the companies involved Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have demonstrated critical leadership, which we hope others all over the world will follow.

Technology companies face increasing pressures from governments everywhere to participate in network censorship and comply with laws that bump up against internationally recognized human rights norms. Most know about China, but Turkey (where YouTube has been blocked for months), Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (where all Internet traffic is reviewed and blocked by URL) all present human rights challenges in an increasingly networked world. And of course, the pressures companies face to serve as intermediaries in such government actions are not limited to repressive and totalitarian regimes, as the warrantless wiretapping scandal in the United States demonstrates. The OpenNet Initiative continues to document the worldwide rise in network censorship and surveillance, which shines an empirical light on threats to human rights that will be invaluable to efforts aimed at reversing these trends.

To meet these challenges, the initiative's diverse group of participants has articulated a set of principles that lay out how companies will incorporate human rights norms and responsible decision-making processes into their operations all over the world. By participating in this initiative, companies commit to a high level of corporate due diligence and risk management with respect to the demands they receive from government, and greater transparency to users about the impact of those demands on freedom of expression and privacy. These commitments are backed by structures and guidelines for implementation, important because companies will be putting the principles into practice throughout their entire global operations. What's more, these commitments are not merely aspirational: fulfillment of these commitments by companies will be evaluated through an independent and credible accountability process.

But company actions alone won't be enough to meet these challenges: significantly, all participants in this Initiative commit to collaborate in the task of advancing core human rights and addressing government actions that impact those rights. Through shared learning and frequent examination of what works and what doesn't, together the initiative can better understand the complexities of the issues and craft more effective and coordinated responses.

OK, I can hear it now: "So what? How will things be different in the world tomorrow?" In the literal sense, tomorrow nothing will be different, but to look for immediate results is short-sided. In working for the shared goal of protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy, there is no silver bullet; nothing changes overnight. As participating companies, human rights groups, investors, and academics alike have learned from each other, there are no bright line rules that can be 100 percent effective in this constantly evolving field, where technologies, government practices, and global contexts can change practically overnight. Moreover, governments bear the ultimate responsibility for protecting the human rights of citizens. However, this Initiative does create something that did not exist before: a mechanism for companies to assess and manage human rights risks, and a roadmap for managing emerging challenges as they arise. Over time, responsible decision-making processes, grounded in the human rights frame, will become the norm. Just as important, the collaboration among diverse stakeholders that this initiative establishes will amplify their ability to understand the human rights challenges and address them proactively. Working together, the Initiative and its participants are better situated to influence government behavior to be more protective of human rights in the digital era.

The launch of the Global Network Initiative coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which first articulated a broad right to freedom of expression regardless of borders. Now many years later, the global network -- and the immeasurable voices it amplifies--has breathed new life into the vision and ideals articulated in that foundational document. We have big ambitions for the GNI towards that end, and this is just the first step. Over time, we aim for the principles and guidelines to take root as a global standard that will be adopted by companies worldwide, employed by diverse stakeholders for advancing human rights, and recognized by governments and international bodies. But that will require other companies to step up to the challenge, join the Initiative, and participate in the hard work ahead.