Access Now welcomes new Ranking Digital Rights Index

This post is authored by Peter Micek with contributions by Alyse Rankin

If you feel powerless to control your data online, you aren’t alone. And according to new statistics, it’s not your fault: The world’s most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies fail to disclose enough information to enable people to make informed choices about the products, providers, and services they access to exercise their human rights online.

Today, Ranking Digital Rights released its 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, a ranking of 22 of the world’s most powerful telecommunications, internet, and mobile companies on their commitments and disclosed policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. Of the 22 companies, only Google and Microsoft scored a rating over 60%, with the average score being 33%.

But this goes beyond numbers. Internet shutdowns, handover of user data, content removal, and account suspension — these are the serious actions companies take that decide whether you’ll be able to safely meet up before marches, securely connect with journalists, send money to loved ones without interference, or anonymously seek medical advice.

The revamped criteria for the 2017 Index include first-ever human rights ranking of Android and Apple iOS, and detailed inquiry into internet shutdowns, among 35 indicators looking at everything from encryption and identity policies to Board oversight, due diligence, and remedy. Here’s a look at a couple key results, a week before the Index’s European launch at our event RightsCon Brussels.

Mobile ecosystems

For the first time, the ranking evaluated three “mobile ecosystems,” including Apple’s iOs, Google’s Android, and Samsung’s implementation of Android, acknowledging the “tremendous influence” of smartphones over users’ enjoyment of freedom of expression and privacy rights.

The 2017 Index found that all three mobile ecosystems failed to provide adequate disclosure of their freedom of expression and privacy policies. As a result, users are unable to understand how their smartphones “control their ability to create, share, and access content” and “determine who has access to their information under what circumstances.” Google Android was found to lead on freedom of expression indicators “by a wide margin”, making the strongest commitment to protecting its users’ freedom of expression and disclosure of relevant policies.

The 2017 Index identified app stores as particular “chokepoints” for freedom of expression and user privacy, and recommended that companies disclose more about their “policies and processes for handling requests to remove or pre-emptively restrict apps” and ensure that all “apps collecting user information have a privacy policy” and that this policy is evaluated.


Internet shutdowns

The 2017 Index contains enhanced criteria on internet shutdowns, an important and timely addition to the indicators. We tracked 56 internet shutdowns around the world in 2016, and several more high profile disruptions already in 2017, including in Cameroon. Telcos can often be required to shut down the internet at risk of losing their licenses to operate, but still have options to push back against governments. Ranking Digital Rights illuminates many ways for telcos to increase transparency on their shutdown policies and practices.

The 2017 Index found that all companies failed to “clearly explain the circumstances under which it my shut down or restrict access to the network.” Telefonica and Vodafone disclose the most about how they respond to orders for network shutdowns, although both achieved a score of just 38%. While several companies were ranked under 6% for disclosure of network shutdown policies, the Index highlighted Bharti Airtel’s lack of disclosure as being of “particular concern given that as many as 30 government-ordered internet shutdowns occurred in India in 2016.” The Index also noted that Bharti Airtel’s disclosures could be “significantly improved without any changes being made to India’s laws and regulations.”

The Index recommended that going forward, companies “provide as much information as possible about their policies for responding to network shutdowns” and detail both the total amount of requests received as well as the number of requests the company complied with.

The 2017 Index follows the inaugural 2015 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, which we welcomed as a roadmap for companies to better respect human rights in policy and practice. Indeed, last year, we wrote to the CEOs of the 16 ranked companies, bringing their attention to the 2015 Index results and recommendations. Twelve of the 16 replied, a positive indication. Companies near the bottom of the ranking — Bharti Airtel, America Movil, Tencent, and Etisalat — failed to respond, which is unfortunate given their poor showing.

With the 2015 criteria in hand, many companies made meaningful improvements, and we expect similar ripples throughout the internet, mobile, and telecom sectors from this powerful new set of indicators.