I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a phone call that would change my life. It was November 2005, and a group of internet companies wanted BSR and Harvard’s Berkman Center to help explore the human rights to privacy and freedom of expression that were of growing risk in many markets around the world.
It’s now July 2010, and I’ve just facilitated my final meeting of the Global Network Initiative (GNI). I’ve completed a handover to the young organization’s new executive director, Susan Morgan. In the intervening four and half years, BSR joined forces with the Center for Democracy and Technology to run a consensus-building process that culminated, in October 2008, with the launch of the GNI and the publication of new ?Principles and Implementation Guidelines on Freedom of Expression and Privacy.
During this time, I’ve helped run 22 in-person multi-stakeholder meetings, drafted and re-drafted hundreds of documents, and spent thousands of hours on the phone. Considering the hours invested by other participants, this adds up to human time and effort on a gigantic scale.
This got me wondering: Was it worth it? What does the experience of the last four and a half years tell us about the significance of multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the GNI?
Looking back to late 2005, it is striking how much has changed:
- First, new standards have emerged where previously there were none. The Principles and Implementation Guidelines offer valuable direction to companies in the communications industry on what to do when faced with demands from governments that may lead to violations of user rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
- Second, whole new avenues of collaboration on human rights issues among companies, NGOs, academics, and investors have opened up. In the face of increasingly significant policy- and regulatory-based moves around the world that threaten user-generated content and privacy, a new coalition of networked and informed advocates has been created.
- Third, and significantly, two new communities have emerged: communities of people inside internet companies who are now much more familiar with human rights, and communities of people inside human rights organizations who now have a much better understanding of the implications of new technology. With communications technology increasingly pervasive in our modern lives—and with growing challenges to individuals’ human rights—this development is not one to be underestimated.
There is still, of course, much more to do, and no one should be under any illusions that a multi-stakeholder initiative on its own will lead to the type of systemic change that we all want to see. In particular, I’d highlight three challenges, all of which are very well known to the GNI:
- First, much greater participation from all parts of the information and communications technology ecosystem—not just internet companies—is required if future IT networks are to be designed to protect human rights.
- Second, much greater participation is required from companies, NGOs, and academics from outside the United States and northern Europe if the impact of the GNI is to be truly global.
- And finally, a huge challenge remains to engage and influence the government entities that are increasingly pulling the private sector (usually unwillingly) into violations of freedom of expression and privacy.
The GNI has brought together a diverse group of determined and driven individuals and organizations that have the opportunity to play a significant role in the protection of human rights in the internet age. It won’t succeed in protecting human rights alone; but neither are we likely to protect freedom of expression and privacy without it. It is my assumption that this same conclusion—that a multi-stakeholder initiative is a necessary but not sufficient driver of change—can be made for other similar efforts.
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