Thanks to Veronica I learned about the “Global Network Initiative” a few hours before it hit my RSS feeds coming from all over the web. If you haven’t heard about it yet, it is a consortium of universities, NGOs, and industry players (noticeably Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) that teamed up to suggest a code of practice to protect free speech as the flow of information becomes more global and more complex. Here is what they wrote on the initiative’s website:
“From the Americas to Europe to the Middle East to Africa and Asia, companies in the information and communications industries face increasing government pressure to comply with domestic laws and policies that require censorship and disclosure of personal information in ways that conflict with internationally recognized human rights laws and standards.
The Initiative is founded upon new Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy – supported by specific implementation commitments and a framework for accountability and learning – that provide a systematic approach for companies, NGOs, investors, academics and others to work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards.
For me, this announcement triggered a couple of thoughts.
First, I think this is an interesting example of the centrality of information in social and political processes. It is also a good example of the complexity of relationships between politics, law, and business on a global scale. International corporations acting in the field of media and information are caught in a situation where they have to navigate between the global nature of their business; the political, social, cultural, and legal characteristics of their country of origin (US in many cases); and the same characteristics and demands of the localities they are acting in. This is definitely not a simple task. There is also little doubt that initiatives such as this one reinforce (Western) principles of freedom of speech and privacy in debates with governments that do not necessarily approve those.
Second, I wonder what is the business interest of commercial entities in this initiative. Of course there is a chance that they join the initiative for ideological reasons, but I doubt they would do it if such a move would compromise their long-term strategic objectives. In Israel, in the 1960’s the journalistic community established the Israeli Press Council (HE), which since then focuses on two main issues: (1) guarding freedom of expression and (2) observing ethical behavior of its members. One of the main reasons behind establishing this voluntary organization was a preemptive strike against the political apparatus making ethical principles into laws. In other words, the media chose to regulate themselves instead of being regulated from outside. So, following this story, I wonder if there is a similar sentiment behind the “Global Network Initiative” – the companies volunteer to self-monitor themselves according to a set of values that they decide on (in consultation with other like-minded bodies), before they are forced to adhere to some sort of external regulation whether on the local or the global levels.
What do you think?
November 1 update:
Here is Micael Zimmer’s take on this initiative.