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[liberationtech] GNI in the news and it's not looking hot

Rebecca MacKinnon rebecca.mackinnon at
Tue Mar 8 08:45:43 PST 2011

Hey there Jake,

As you know I'm on the GNI board and have been involved with it from the beginning. Everything I'm about to write represents nobody else's opinion but my own.  

I will leave it to GNI corporate participants named in your e-mail to respond to your critiques or not as they see fit. Video of the panel you mentioned can be found here:

You have put your finger on the obvious fact that GNI is not a high bar. As you rightly point out, the fact that so many companies can't even be bothered to meet GNI standards and commit publicly to a few baseline principles on free expression and privacy is patently outrageous. 

I agree that if large numbers of companies were to join GNI, many of the problems you and I and others on this list are concerned about are going to be far from solved. The need for viable non-commercial, user-friendly, decentralized and distributed alternatives to commercial platforms and networks is critical. The need for more aggressive activism of all kinds is urgent. More public awareness-raising is urgent. Efforts like Shava's nascent privacy icon project are important and necessary. There needs to be better and more intelligent public policy coming from nations that call themselves democracies. I could go on and on about all of the things that are urgently needed.  We need a massive ecosystem of efforts. But I do not agree that GNI is a "corporate-washing joke." 

Based on my own involvement with the organization over the past few years, while I think that GNI is only one step forward, and like all multi-stakeholder initiatives involves compromise, I nonetheless do believe that it's a step in the right direction.  I do believe that the world's most politically vulnerable Internet and mobile users will be better off if Internet and telecoms companies join GNI than if they don't. If GNI prevents even one person going to jail and having their life ruined, or enables even one more activist group to get its message out at a critical moment when it otherwise would have been foiled, then to me that is worth it even though it falls short of how things ought to be in the ideal world.

Here are a few ways I think GNI has made a difference:
- While none of the GNI member companies are perfect and some are doing better than others, the human rights assessments that they've started to do as GNI members has helped member companies avoid some screwups which we'll never know about because they never happened. Yahoo, for instance, after conducting a human rights assessment decided to run its Vietnamese service out of Singapore in order to avoid being complicit in jailing dissidents as it was in China.
- Most companies have little or no in-house human rights expertise. GNI membership gives companies a channel through which to seek advice from human rights groups before making decisions about certain details of certain products and services, or deciding how to manage problems that crop up. I assure you, this channel is used with great regularity in ways the human rights groups would not want to be involved with if they didn't think they were making a real difference for real people. For example: while there are plenty of issues with Microsoft, I think that their ties to the human rights community through GNI enabled them to respond to the mess they found themselves in in Russia more intelligently and helpfully than they would have if the same thing had happened before they joined GNI. [1]
-  GNI has gotten at least some investors to start including free expression and privacy in their ethical investing criteria. Before 2005 the investment community screened companies for labor, environment, sustainability etc, but not for free expression and privacy. In fact it hadn't occurred to the "ethical investing" community that this was an issue. They're learning fast now and a growing number are starting to include free expression and privacy in their investment criteria. While we've seen from the environmental and sustainability movements that it can take a long time to influence entire industries in this way, over time the criteria of ethical investors can make a difference in how companies impact the lives of human beings all over the world.
- The GNI principles take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a body of other international human rights law and articulate how those pre-internet concepts should be upheld by Internet and telecommunications business. [2] Beyond GNI, investors, civil society, policymakers, and even non-GNI companies are starting to use the principles in a range of contexts that I believe are meaningful though hard to quantify at this stage.

GNI is one organism in a very young and fragile ecosystem of groups and coalitions trying to defend and protect civil liberties and human rights in digital spaces. As with the environmental movement and other movements, this cause is going to require a much more robust ecosystem of diverse efforts over many years in order to ensure that the net momentum is in a more forward than backward direction. In the environmental movement, some organizations and initiatives have seen value in working with corporations or governments or both to achieve baby steps forward. Others are opposed to compromise and insist on radical alternatives as the only course. All points on the spectrum need to exist in order to make any progress at all. 

Members of this ecosystem certainly need to be able to handle - and should welcome - criticism of one another, along with major philosophical disagreements. However I hope that we can all fundamentally respect each others' shared intentions and goals. 



Rebecca MacKinnon
Schwartz Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
Cell: +1-617-939-3493
E-mail: rebecca.mackinnon at
Twitter: @rmack

On Mar 8, 2011, at 12:09 AM, Jacob Appelbaum wrote:

> On 03/07/2011 11:50 AM, Katrin Verclas wrote:
> GNI is frankly, a giant corporate {privacy,security,human rights,
> etc}-washing joke. The people involved who really care essentially have
> an impossible task. The only reason GNI has any credit at all is because
> of Google's presence in the group. Google should leave the group and
> refuse to work with people who put corporate profits before human rights
> issues. Proactive action is more important than claiming to actually
> make an impact.
> My memory is a bit fuzzy but I recall that I attended a conference in
> Berkeley a few years ago by the name of the Soul of the New Machine. At
> this conference, I attended a GNI "discussion" with the audience. It was
> a heavily moderated, written discussion format and it was utterly
> worthless. All of my questions were rejected by the question card moderator.
> Microsoft argued against anonymity on the internet; they were spreading
> lies about how the creators of the internet didn't realize how bad
> anonymity would be for everyone. A few weeks prior, I'd asked Vint Cerf,
> one of the creators of the internet, about anonymity online and he
> certainly didn't sound like a clueless guy unaware of the anonymity
> situation on the internet. He even stated that it shouldn't change,
> merely that we should also support strong authentication when it's
> desired. Microsoft's shill had no idea about this perspective because he
> was paid to push a pro-identity agenda to increase corporate profit and
> state control is the main selling point. Absolutely disgusting.
> Yahoo! had a lawyer who argued that the treatment of Oiwan Lam's case[0]
> by Flickr/Yahoo! was reasonable. He refused to write her a letter of
> support when I requested it of him; he argued that writing a letter
> "would not scale" and the same lawyer even told me how the photographer
> (!) was happy with this resolution from Flickr/Yahoo!. A great irony was
> that the lawyer of course had no idea that _I_ was the photographer and
> clearly I was not actually happy as he suggested. It's weird when
> someone lies directly to your face about how you feel but it's
> satisfying when they realize what's actually happening. In that
> schadenfreude kind of way, of course. This lawyer from Yahoo! promised
> to get back to me and to this day, I've never heard a thing from them
> again. I don't believe that Oiwan ever got any support from Yahoo! or
> Flickr. I certainly never received an appology from that lawyer for his
> comments. Pretty much what I expected all along but it was sad to have
> this confirmation.
> Yahoo!'s lawyers said nothing about their methods for preventing another
> Shi Tao case[1] from re-occurring. Considering the fact that they are
> basically unable to deploy SSL/TLS, I'm unsurprised by the rest of their
> policies. Lots of good people at Yahoo! are tainted by this kind of
> behavior. They have a lot of talented engineers and people who care
> about things that matter - I once wondered why they fail so badly at
> this kind of thing. Some years later, I worked with some ex-Yahoo!
> middle manager types and my questions were answered. Profit over people
> seems to be a guiding corporate principle with only a few exceptions.
> Google had a representative who explained that they were fighting a bad
> internet identity law in South Korea and attempting to resolve it in a
> privacy protecting manner. Until they were able to provide a user
> protecting solution, they shut down the service in question. The service
> was the South Korean Youtube site and the law was about registration of
> usernames to real Korean state issued IDs.
> I was impressed by Google's approach and I wondered why they'd taint
> themselves by being anywhere near Yahoo! or Microsoft on human rights
> issues. Google is far from perfect but they were really on message in a
> believable way.
> Of course, I'm sure things have changed a lot and these companies are
> all doing much better now. Their respective leaked law enforcement
> wiretapping guides[2][3][4] seem to indicate otherwise but I'm sure
> that's just an oversight. It's a wonder that Facebook and other
> companies haven't joined up!
> The fact that other groups aren't joining only seems to underscore how
> bad things have become across the entire board. Things are probably not
> friendly to users when a company can't even agree on the GNI principles!
> I look forward to their next self-issued press release that
> congratulates GNI for being such a stand up bunch of corporations taking
> pro-active action. Oh also, I look forward to more secret settlements
> for those "Gotcha" moments that accidentally slip past the rigorous
> external auditing processes.
> All the best,
> Jacob
> [0]
> [1]
> [2]
> [3]
> [4]
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