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The Human Rights Violations Of Google, Microsoft, And Yahoo

A new report details how and when the Internet giants are doing things like giving information to repressive governments or working with less-than-savory vendors. How scrupulous are our tech companies?

Big Internet companies might just be words and pictures on a screen to you most of the time, but they’re also real companies that employ people and interact with the world on a daily basis. And, as with most multinational conglomerates in thrall to the profit motive, they sometimes don’t treat human beings so well (like, say, when they give your data to a government that’s trying to jail or kill you). What, exactly, are they doing wrong?

The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a mixed consortium that includes Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, just released their 2011 annual report (PDF), which lays out findings on all three companies’ human rights and free speech records.

Unfortunately, the catch in the report is that the full findings won’t be released until 2013, but the report details how outside auditors are being granted unprecedented access to all three’s inner workings. According to the report, all three companies need to engage more directly with human rights groups and scrutinize vendors more closely.

As these things go, the report’s findings are hidden in dense legalese. The Global Network Initiative, which was founded in 2008 and includes big names like the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Church of Sweden, and Human Rights Watch, monitors tech firms’ policies and procedures when dealing with government requests affecting free speech and privacy. While this concern is primarily associated in the public mind with repressive governments such as China and Iran, much of the report’s text deals with investigations—primarily concerning copyright—instigated by the American government.

One of the difficulties for all three corporations was in opening their doors to outside examiners. Writing in Google’s Public Policy Blog, Google’s Bob Boorstin and Lewis Segall diplomatically stated that GNI told them "that while we’re by no means perfect, the assessments are credible and rigorous and demonstration that companies are making progress." In parts of the report itself, the GNI seems to acknowledge that participating companies are afraid they might gain access to trade secrets or proprietary product information.

In the report, the GNI specifically faulted the tech industry as a whole for insufficient restrictions surrounding "dual-use" hardware technologies, such as routing and network equipment, that could be used for censorship and surveillance by government such as China’s or Syria’s. It also raised concerns about vendor contracts, the training board directors about freedom of expression and privacy, and the need for tech firms to make specific disclosure to users when their data might be viewed by government authorities.

It also lays out a framework for the GNI’s investigation of all three firms; assessors are being used from law firm Foley Hoag, and consultants KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo provided assessors earlier this year with confidential reports; GNI’s board then received redacted versions of the final audits. In 2013, GNI will release a new report that will reveal all three firms’ privacy and free speech adherence.

It’s an odd situation; the biggest news out of GNI’s document isn’t Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo’s rights policies. Instead, the big news is that all three are opening their offices and internal practices to investigation by a neutral outside authority. As Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists (which is a part of GNI) wrote, "six years ago the idea that the titans of the Internet would open up their inner workings to outside scrutiny seemed a stretch."