But she does have a strong view of where her strengths lie. She wasn’t, for instance, going to be the one to implement her own suggestion that citizens of the Internet from across the world band together to demand civil rights. “I’m not a rabble-rousing movement leader,” she says. A fact-based research project that would increase accountability and transparency of powerful companies seemed like a better way to expand on the ideas she had developed.

To create criteria on which to rank these companies, MacKinnon has been drawing on the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and consulting with human rights groups, academics, technologists, and socially responsible investors. The ranking system she comes up with needs to be meaningful to stakeholders like these and to reflect what’s reasonable to expect from companies and how they deal with the demands of governments across the world.

“Most companies would rather not be graded at all,” she says. “If you start talking to them too early, they’ll say, ‘Oh, please don’t do it. We’d rather you went and wrote another book.’ Or, ‘We’d rather you’d rank governments—they’re much worse.’”

That’s part of the reason it took as long as it did to release the first set of draft criteria: This one is coherent enough, MacKinnon says, to share with the world—and with the companies who will serve as the project’s case studies, to test out and polish the questions that will be used to create the actual rankings. She’s not ready to say exactly which companies will be included in the first big report yet—there’s a draft list that keeps changing, but “if you’re thinking of the most powerful Internet companies that are used by the greatest number of people, you can guess the obvious ones,” she says. She and her collaborators are also looking at including newer companies, less obvious ones, cloud computing leaders, widely used domain hosts, and companies that are household names in other countries, but not in the US.

At the same time, her strategy for keeping herself accountable is to keep talking to everyone who has a stake in the project’s outcome and to make the ranking project itself as transparent as possible.

“I was advised early on that we should put as much in the public as early as possible and not being all secretive about what we’re working on,” she says. “The companies are not going to be able to say they didn’t know it was coming.”

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

 

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.