Internet companies with overseas operations such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo face growing pressure from foreign governments to censor their networks and share private consumer data. To address increasing challenges to digital rights those companies founded the Global Network Initiative to coordinate with academics, investors and advocacy groups.
A total of seven international tech companies are full members of this digital rights organization, as the GNI announced Tuesday that LinkedIn is joining the group as an observer while Procera Networks is joining as the seventh full-member company. Procera delivers deep packet inspection technology for fixed, mobile and wireless network operators. Observers are involved in discussions about challenges to digital rights, but they do not submit themselves to rights assessments of their company policies.
Governments worldwide are passing new laws to allow them to censor information and monitor the Internet, but companies are getting better at pushing back against state efforts to restrict digital rights, according to a report published by human rights watchdog Freedom House on Oct. 3.
The GNI's membership meets to discuss emerging risks to free expression and privacy in the tech sector, and to discuss best practices for companies to deal with laws around the world that could threaten those principles, says David Sullivan, communications director for the group.
"Our members are pressing the U.S. government to be able to report on the national security surveillance requests they receive, as well as to reform troublesome laws in places including India, the UK, and Vietnam," Sullivan says.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft helped found the GNI in 2009 to help companies assess whether their global business policies uphold human rights standards and to develop best practices to counter pressure from governments that could violate those rights. LinkedIn will work with the GNI as an observer for one year, before deciding whether to join as a full member. As a full member, the company would be assessed on its approach to Internet freedom.
Member companies are assessed by contractors approved by the GNI. Once an assessment is complete, the GNI reviews the results to determine whether a company's practices uphold the group's principles.The case review assessments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are being completed now and GNI will report on them before the end of 2013.
"LinkedIn's long-term vision is to create economic opportunities for every professional in the world, including matching talented individuals with job and business prospects, and we believe we will be able fulfill this vision by promoting internet access and usage," according to an emailed statement from LinkedIn.
LinkedIn took other steps to push for digital rights this year by publishing its first transparency report in September detailing requests for data from governments around the world. The company also sued the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the right to publish requests for data the U.S. government said were classified because of national security concerns.
Companies are stepping up efforts to publish transparency reports since the revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency," Sullivan says. "Google led the way publishing transparency reports, and now many other companies have followed suit. They are useful also as a tool for advocates to be able to go to governments and argue for changes in laws."
Procera Networks also has a chance to be an example for other deep-packet inspection companies by being transparent and scrutinizing of its customers as a member of the GNI, Sullivan says. That technology is considered dual use because governments in countries, including Libya and Iran, have bought deep-packet inspection gear from global firms to build surveillance networks.
Jim Brear, president and CEO of Procera Networks, said in an emailed statement that his company would uphold the GNI principles of free expression and privacy "to enable subscribers to embrace the economic advancement and intellectual pursuits offered by the Internet."
The GNI is working to challenge surveillance states but it does not address consumer privacy issues, Sullivan clarifies, as "there are many other groups working on consumer privacy issues."
Google and Facebook have pressed the NSA for greater transparency on its national security requests for data, and consumers in turn criticize the privacy policies of those companies as not transparent enough. A class action lawsuit in California Northern District Court also accuses LinkedIn of breaking into user accounts and spamming contacts lists with unwanted messages.
Nate Cardozo, staff attorney for digital right advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says "LinkedIn has been great defending its users privacy against the government," but he would not speak for or against LinkedIn's consumer-privacy policies.
"The purpose of LinkedIn is based around users sharing information with LinkedIn, with its other users and with third parties," Cardozo says. "The purpose of LinkedIn is not for users to share information with the government."