Creating Internet accountability

Author Rebecca MacKinnon's new project aims to rank Internet giants on human rights

Rebecca MacKinnon is the sort of person who, after Edward Snowden leaked details of the government’s digital surveillance program, could say, if she wanted to: I told you so. At least, that’s what fans have been telling her, lately. While she was promoting her 2012 book, Consent of the Networked, she spent a good bit of time talking about surveillance not only in authoritarian countries but also in democracies, and when Snowden’s leaks rustled up public interest in that very topic, “It was like, ‘Hello, I’ve been talking about this!’” she says. “Finally someone is paying attention to these issues.”

In Consent of the Networked, MacKinnon wrote about democracy in the digital age—how the decisions of big Internet companies and governments were changing civil rights around the world, and not always in ways that should sit well citizens of democratic societies. Decisions like, say, handing over the information companies collect about their users to the National Security Agency.

“There’s a pretty big black box, as the Snowden revelations have shown, around the relationships between companies and government,” she says. “What these companies are doing with this information—they’re not being sufficiently transparent about what they’re doing with it.”

With her new project, Ranking Digital Rights, MacKinnon aims to clear away some of that opacity. The project will assess and rank Internet and telecommunications companies on their policies, practices, and transparency around human rights, free expression, and privacy. Some Internet companies already participate in voluntary assessments of their work on these issue. But MacKinnon wants to expand accountability to a bigger group of companies. Funding permitting, the project will rank 50 to 100 companies.

It’s a mammoth task: After months of work, the project’s first product, a draft of the criteria that it might use to evaluate companies, came out in early July. Researchers are now starting on case studies; the goal is to develop the final draft of the ranking criteria by the end of this year, complete the methodology, and start assessing companies in the next, releasing the first report later in 2014. But with this project, she could use the platform and reputation she’s built around issues of Internet freedom to help make sure she can say “I told you so” about the possibilities of digital rights, instead of the pitfalls of letting them slip away.

MacKinnon began thinking about this project as she was promoting her book and trying to figure out what would come next for her. In Consent of the Networked, she had laid out a number of actions—including developing a more vibrant Internet freedom movement—and plenty of people had asked her if she was planning on doing anything concrete to make them happen. “Do I write another book?” she thought. “Or do I actually try to push in practice some of the things I was calling for?”

That can be an angst-provoking question for a journalist. MacKinnon started her career in Beijing, working her way up in the CNN bureau to become a correspondent. Ten years ago, after a stint in the network’s Tokyo bureau, she left Asia to become a fellow at Harvard, looking at “whether new technology and new media can be used to create better journalism.” Since then, she’s lived professionally in the world of university fellowships, first researching Internet censorship in China, then collecting material for her book. She’s far enough away from the media’s mainstream that not everyone’s sure what to call her anymore. 

“I tend to be described as a journalist/advocate,” she says. “We’re at a point in history that whether the Internet is going to evolve in a way that’s compatible with democracy and human rights is really kind of up in the air. However you want to pigeonhole me, with whatever label, I’d like to make a contribution to it going in the right direction. Call me what you want.”

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.”

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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. Tags: