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An Important Step for Human Rights and Global IT Expansion

It was extremely gratifying to witness the launch this week of the Global Network Initiative: Protecting and Advancing Freedom of Expression and Privacy and Communications Technologies.


The product of more than two years of study and development by companies and public interest groups, the Initiative offers a set of guiding principles for global IT companies doing business in an increasingly global environment.


Specifically it aims to address the real challenge faced by companies doing business in jurisdictions where local laws may run counter to their own internal commitments to privacy, free speech and other human rights.


It also underscores an important — if controversial — point. It is vital for technology companies to engage on the world stage, and to find collaborative ways to do so in ways that uphold and enhance human rights. These principles are a reasoned response to those who say that western companies should simply refuse to do business in jurisdictions that have potentially challenging laws.


At the 2007 world Internet Governance Forum in Brazil, I participated in a panel on this topic and made these points. Although some wanted companies to just ignore foreign governments, most agreed that such an approach would serve neither companies — which could be kicked-out of nations for refusing to comply with laws — or users — who could lose access to critical information technologies.


At the time we argued that addressing this issue would require the combined efforts of companies and the public interest community. This initiative is a critical and significant step in the right direction.


The growth of IT companies throughout the world has been an enormous boon to free speech and human rights. Although these technologies present new challenges, particularly when taken together with widely varying laws, they are doing far more good than harm, everywhere that they are deployed.


Initiatives like this one will help companies to minimize those threats even more as they bring the world-expanding power of technology to the next billion Internet users around the world.


Finally I’d especially like to acknowledge the work done by the Center for Democracy & Technology, which played a key role in the process.


In 2007, I also responded to the allegations that Yahoo had “ignored” human rights in China. The New York Times printed my letter here.


I stand by that statement. It’s encouraging now to see that companies like Yahoo! — an active participant in the Initiative — have tools to address these challenging issues constructively, in a way that expands the reach of these technologies.