Facebook joins GNI amid moves to improve privacy and expression impacts

Access welcomes the news that Facebook will join the Global Network Initiative (GNI), bolstering the group’s roster of some of the biggest firms in communications technology.

Facebook began participating in GNI as an “observer” for a yearlong trial that began in May 2012, just before the social media company’s Initial Public Offering (IPO). Its observer status exempted Facebook from the GNI’s independent human rights audits, which it will now be subject to in line with GNI’s Governance, Accountability, & Learning Framework. A blog from a GNI member, the Committee to Protect Journalist, reports Facebook will begin assessments in 2015.

In creating the “observer status” for Facebook, GNI offered the company a single, non-renewable twelve-month term. Advertised as “a pathway for companies to full membership in GNI and the accountable human rights mechanisms that are part of it,” the experiment was successful.

Access encourages Facebook to proceed swiftly through the GNI assessment process and publicly benchmark its progress. In addition, the company should join its peers like Google and Microsoft by releasing a transparency report. Access has previously called for Facebook to release data on its compliance with government requests for user data. Such reports represent one immediate way to hold governments accountable for making requests that do not respect domestic and international human rights law.

Both GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan, and Facebook’s Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Public Policy, Elliot Schrage, heralded the partnership as a way to pressure governments to protect rights and remove obstacles to free expression online. It also offers a space for companies to collaborate and to improve their own policies. As GNI’s press release states, its “principles and guidelines provide companies with a framework for responding to government requests in a manner that protects and advances freedom of expression and privacy.” Indeed, GNI’s six member companies undergo independent audits of their compliance with these guidelines.

Joining GNI is just one of several recent moves by Facebook to improve its human rights impacts. Facebook recently announced it has hired new data protection staff to help put into action Facebook’s commitments to respect the privacy and free expression rights of its users.

Human rights award

As announced at the Stockholm Internet Forum this week, the company will also increase funding for the “AccessNow.org Facebook Human Rights Award,” in order to further promote free expression and “support innovation in human rights and development on the Facebook platform.”

To support users of the Facebook platform who seek to improve human rights or social good outcomes, Facebook partnered with Access last year for the $20,000 Access Facebook Award portion of the Tech Innovation Prize for the best actionable ideas for utilizing Facebook towards these goals, and was first awarded in 2012 to four deserving projects.

Commenting on the 2013 Tech Innovation Prize and the funding increase, Facebook declared, “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected,” and noted that “more can be done to advance pro-innovation policies that expand Internet access and increase the capacity of technology to advance human rights.”

We are very pleased to have Facebook’s continued support for the Tech Innovation Prize and look forward to working with the company on this and other initiatives that defend and extend the digital rights of users.