Ranking Digital Rights: Holding tech companies accountable on freedom of expression and privacy

We are developing a system to assess, compare, and rank the world’s most powerful tech companies on free expression and privacy criteria. Why? If the Internet is to be a platform for free expression and innovation, companies that control and shape much of our online lives – Internet and telecommunications companies, software producers, and mobile device and networking equipment manufacturers – must respect and protect users' rights. Ranking Digital Rights will produce a ranking or index, that will score companies on what they are (and aren't) doing to respect free expression and privacy. The data we generate will equip advocates, policymakers and investors with the facts needed to hold companies accountable.

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Who are the users or target customers of your project, and what have you learned from them so far? Please give specific examples.

Our target users are:

  • Companies, whose policies and practices we seek to benchmark and thus influence; 
  • Investors, who want to invest in a socially responsible manner; 
  • Civil society advocates, who want concrete information on companies to better inform their advocacy; 
  • Journalists, who need more concrete data and analysis about the tech companies they cover in order to serve a post-Snowden audience increasingly concerned about online rights; 
  • Policymakers, who might formulate better policies if they are better informed by clear data illustrating how their laws and regulations enable or prevent companies from making the Internet more free and innovative. 
  • Internet users around the world, who will be able to make more informed decisions about how they use technology after learning about our findings through the news media and/or social media campaigns carried out by advocacy groups; 

…all of whom will help to shape the global norms that underpin a free and open Internet.
During our research over the past year we learned that companies are most likely to take a ranking seriously if they are convinced that its methodology is grounded in thorough research conducted in an open manner that includes conversations with companies themselves. In June 2013 we developed a draft criteria and began case study research on companies based throughout the world. In February 2014 we released a draft methodology. We then sought feedback from companies at RightsCon, at a meeting of the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue, and on a webinar hosted by BSR. During our case study research one executive responsible for privacy told us that if this is done well and credibly, it would give champions of user rights inside the company more ammunition to push back against those who make arguments like: “since users haven’t rebelled why should we change our priorities?” Another executive expressed enthusiasm that their company could compete on these types of criteria. But we’ve also had less positive conversations and when we launch in 2015 we can expect some companies to attack us publicly and aggressively. Therefore it is vital that our methodology receives strong support from the other stakeholder groups listed above – particularly investors and civil society advocates – and that they too have a chance to be involved with the project’s development.
Several European telecommunications executives tell us that their European investors are starting to ask about privacy. Socially responsible investors tell us it would be helpful to have a credible system – beyond a scouring of media databases for reports – on which they could base their decisions. Investor concern on free expression and privacy has reached the point where the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board published provisional standards for how ICT companies should report to the Securities Exchange Commission on those issues. Their draft document includes questions about transparency reporting, privacy policies, and security standards—which overlap with our own criteria. We have consulted with investors at every step since RDR’s inception in early 2013 to ensure that our data will be credible and useful for making investment decisions.
From civil society advocates, particularly those outside the United States, we have learned that while many groups have experience lobbying governments to change policy (or to stop bad laws), they have much less experience in advocating for change by companies. This is due in part to the lack of information about how company policies affect Internet users located in other jurisdictions. Concrete, comparative data about these companies can empower civil society to build effective advocacy strategies tailored to users under their legal regimes. We have been in constant conversation with civil society advocates from around the world, seeking their input in one-on-one conversations, conference calls, and in-person workshops.
From journalists, we have learned that better data and analysis about how the world’s most powerful ICT companies deal with (or fail to deal with) challenges to freedom of expression and privacy would be very welcome. When China’s Sina Weibo recently launched its IPO, many journalists covering the story did not have a good framework to compare Weibo’s policies and practices related to Internet users’ rights with other social media companies. In the post-Snowden world news audiences have shown they care about these issues. RDR would generate great data for interactive maps and infographics, around which stories and investigative journalism could be built.

We intend to make sure that our data will be open and as compatible as possible with other data being released by other projects, like the M-Lab and OONI (both Knight semi-finalists and with whom we have good relationships). We hope to partner with them and similar organizations to develop high-impact data journalism projects to call attention to trends that journalists can further investigate.

What assumptions are you making in what you propose, and how will you test them?

We are assuming that:

  • Investors will use our data to guide their investment decisions; 
  • Advocates for Internet freedom and privacy will use our data in crafting company-focused advocacy agendas; 
  • News organizations will use our data and analysis in their reporting about the companies we rank;
  • Company executives and board members will take the data seriously given its impact on investors, advocates, and the media. 

After we have finalized our Phase 1 methodology covering Internet and telecommunication companies, we will test these assumptions in our pilot study to be conducted in the second half of 2014. We plan to select no more than 10 companies from the possible 40-50 companies we aim to rank in 2015. We will then work with selected investors, civil society groups, some of the companies themselves, and a web developer (and hopefully also a news organization or journalism school) to test out our assumptions – and more importantly, to figure out what we need to change or adjust.

This pilot phase will also enable us to develop longer-term partnerships with investors and research institutions for post-launch company engagement, a long-term advocacy plan with key advocacy groups to make sure that advocates will be prepared to use the ranking effectively, and a long-term media strategy that we hope will include media partnerships.

How will you get your project in front of the necessary people or organizations?

Our project team is constantly reaching out to relevant people and organizations. Our project lead, Rebecca MacKinnon, has been promoting RDR at various high-profile conferences, including Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing (SRI), the Web We Want’s 2013 Index launch, and RightsCon. Because she is a founding member and former board member of the Global Network Initiative, she has existing relationships with our target users. Through her work over the past decade on issues related to global Internet freedom and as co-founder of Global Voices, as an academic researcher, and as an independent advocate, we have an extensive international network of advocacy groups and academics. Thanks to her previous career as a CNN journalist and more recent prominence as a writer on Internet freedom issues, we have strong ties to an international network of media organizations and journalism schools.

What are the obstacles to implementing your idea, and how will you address them?

Our main challenge is in finding the resources to develop the capacity to systematically rank up to 100 companies on an annual or quarterly basis.

Resources aside, one challenge we identified through our research is the likelihood that many companies will refuse to respond to surveys or researcher queries. Thus we decided to base our methodology on information that is publicly available or which can be obtained (or tested) by a user or subscriber.

Another challenge is that many of the companies we intend to rank have a wide range of products and services across a range of jurisdictions, without uniform policies and practices. We are tackling this challenge by consulting with projects that rank large multinational companies on other issues, along with organizations that provide data to socially responsible investors.

How much do you think your project will cost, and what are the major expenses?

Since launching in early 2013, we have made it this far thanks to generous support from the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Hivos, Internews, and the University of Pennsylvania. Our existing funds will enable us to finish the Phase 1 methodology (covering Internet and telecommunications companies), conduct a pilot study, and start the research for Phase 2 (covering devices, equipment, and software).

In order to launch Phase 1 by late 2015 we seek $300,000 to cover the following activities/functions:

  1. Hold a public convening in early 2015 about the results of our pilot study and launch the actual ranking process; 
  2. Build a process to collect and analyze company information to a standard that will be credible with investors; 
  3. Build and maintain a database
  4. Build and maintain an interactive website
  5. Launch the results of the first ranking in late 2015, in conjunction with a media strategy, advocacy campaign, and engagement process with companies and investors about the results. 

Starting in 2016 we anticipate an annual budget of approximately $400,000-$500,000, which is consistent with the budgets of comparable ranking projects.

In order to maximize effectiveness and efficiency we seek to form partnerships with organizations that already carry out one or more of the above types of functions/activities related to business and human rights and/or Internet freedom and openness. We are also seeking to partner with other organizations interested in playing the following roles:
  1. Technical testing to verify companies’ claims about their security and other technical practices; 
  2. Advocacy campaigns; 
  3. Regular outreach to companies and investors around the world; 
  4. Targeted engagement with policymakers.


How will you use the rankings to influence the behavior of the organizations you research?

Our theory of change is pragmatic: Companies are more likely to take an issue seriously if their investors take it seriously. Investors have played a key role in improving the human rights and sustainability practices of companies. The Global Network Initiative and other company-focused efforts to promote online freedom of expression and privacy have demonstrated that companies are mostly likely to change when presented with clear and undisputable facts. Companies are also more likely to change when they can tell a positive story about themselves related to that change. Companies also have further incentive to change when they have clear benchmarks and standards against which they can evaluate their performance.

Ranking Digital Rights will provide investors, advocates, and companies with data that satisfies all of these needs. It will also help to forge broader public consensus around what company “best practice” ought to look like. If the public receives a clearer and more consistent set of messages through the media, from human rights advocates, and from influential people they respect about what companies have no excuse to be doing - or not to be doing - they will be more likely to base their own choices and behaviors around that understanding.

Launched in 2013, the Ranking Digital Rights project (RDR) targets a problem that project lead Rebecca MacKinnon described in her 2011 TED talk and 2012 book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. Internet users around the world face a rapid escalation of digital surveillance and censorship by governments and corporations via the products, services, and operations of information and communication technology (ICT) sector companies. This trend in turn makes it increasingly difficult for people to express themselves, access content they want, or innovate safely and effectively if powerful entities -particularly corporations or governments - seek to prevent them from doing so.

By ranking companies on free expression and privacy criteria we aim to accomplish four key objectives:

1. Set out a clear pathway for companies to improve their policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy through concrete, measurable steps;

2. Inform the decisions of consumers and socially responsible investors;

3. Inform company-directed advocacy strategies of civil society groups;

4. Identify the specific government behaviors that hinder companies from respecting Internet users' human rights, thus serving to better inform government-directed advocacy strategies. 

To address this challenge we are working with an international team of researchers and advoacates to develop a system to assess, compare, and publicly rank the world’s most powerful ICT companies on free expression and privacy criteria. Funds permitting, we aim to launch the ranking in 2015. Depending on resources and the outcome of our 2014 pilot study, we will decide whether the ranking will be updated annually, semi-annually, or quarterly. 

The ranking will be grounded in a set of media and advocacy partnerships, a well conceived approach to data visualization, narative analysis and strategies for engagement with investors, companies, and the public that will be developed over the course of 2014. The project website would feature regular blog updates, plus other features for public engagement such as a system through which people could report about their own direct experience with the companies we are ranking.

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

Ranking Digital Rights is an international team of researchers and advocates who are building a system to assess, compare, and rank the world’s most powerful tech companies on free expression and privacy criteria.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

A global ranking framework for technology companies on digital free expression and privacy criteria can be a powerful tool for investors, consumers, policymakers, and companies themselves to identify best practices and challenges alike faced by companies in meeting their responsibility to respect and protect human rights on the global Internet. Companies are already being measured by investors, universities, NGOs and international organizations on other human rights, social responsibility and sustainability criteria - from conflict minerals to labor practices to carbon disclosure. Many rankings efforts such as the Access to Medicines Index and the Corporate Equality Index have had real impact on corporate practices. This gives us reason to believe that if our ranking is done well, we too can have a substantial, measurable impact on the extent to which companies respect and protect Internet users' rights.

What progress have you made so far?

We spent 2013 conducting expert consultations and in-depth case study research, testing out possible criteria questions on different types of companies in different parts of the world, producing the first draft of a methodology in early 2014. We have developed the following plan: finalize the methodology and carry out a pilot later in 2014; develop clear media, web, and advocacy strategies; then roll out the first phase of the ranking (covering up to 50 Internet and telecommunications companies) in 2015, adding the “phase 2” companies (device, equipment and software) in 2016. From there on out we would rank between 50-100 companies according to a consistent methodology so that companies' progress can be measured both against themselves across time as well as against each other.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

1. A significant number of the world’s most powerful tech sector companies will compete to improve their performance on free expression and privacy. 2. Socially responsible investors will have the necessary data (which they do not currently have) to benchmark company performance on digital free expression and privacy. 3. Civil society advocates will have more concrete data with which to push for change in corporate practices as well as national laws and global policy frameworks.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

• Project Lead: Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, founding board member of the Global Network Initiative.
• New America Foundation Open Technology Institute
• World Wide Web Foundation
• University of Pennsylvania (Global Engagement Fund, Center for Global Communications Studies at the Annenberg School)
• Internews Center for Innovation and Learning
• Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore
• Center for Media and Communications Studies, Central European Univeristy, Budapest
• Alexander Von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Berlin
• Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade, Brazil
• Access
• CitizenLab, University of Toronto
• Research Coordinators: Allon Bar (based in the Netherlands) and Richard Danbury (based in the UK)
• U.S. Company Researcher: Hae-in Lim, MA Candidate, Johns-Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
• Russia company research: Tatiana Indina, Center for the Study of New Media & Society, Moscow.
• India company research: Ellonai Hickock, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.
• China company research: Hu Yong, Peking University School of Journalism and Communication.
• European company research: Kirsten Gollatz, Alexander von Humboldt- Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft; Agustin Rossi Silvano, European University Institute; Elisabetta Ferrari, Central European University.
• Latin America company research: Celina Beatriz Mendes de Almeida, Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade, Brazil


Washington, DC, USA (working with a network of individuals and institutions all over the world)


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One critical way to preserve the *open* internet is to incentivize the companies that we rely on to conduct our communications to do so in as secure and user-centered manner as possible. This project would do a lot to empower web users to exercise that kind of informed leverage, and I heartily endorse it!

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