December 7, 2019

Hope rests in global movement for human rights: An Interview with Rebecca MacKinnon

Rebecca MacKinnon is an Internet freedom advocate and one of the pioneers of global discussions on online freedom of expression. She currently works as the director of Ranking Digital Rights, which promotes privacy of Internet users and free expression by ranking “the world’s most powerful Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies on relevant commitments and policies, based on international human rights standards”. Its 2019 Corporate Accountability Index was released in May. MacKinnon is the author of the 2012 book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. She was a founding member of the Global Network Initiative and co-founder of Global Voices Online, an international multilingual citizen media initiative.

Digital Rights Monitor spoke with MacKinnon on the sidelines of the RightsCon 2019 summit in Tunisia about the corporate accountability index and global advocacy for digital rights.

Digital Rights Monitor (DRM): Ranking Digital Rights recently published its 2019 index. Some ICT companies such as Microsoft seem to be improving their position in the ranking over the years. What are they doing right that you would also recommend to other companies?

Rebecca MacKinnon (RM): The companies that are doing well are being more transparent about what kinds of government demands they are getting to either remove content or to share user data and they are being more transparent about their policies. They have company-wide commitments to respect user rights. They are conducting human rights impact assessments on a wider range of aspects of their business that might affect user rights. The companies that do best in the index have a board of directors that exercises oversight over the company’s impact on freedom of expression and privacy so there’s more accountability and more attention paid to these issues in a systematic way across the company. Companies that are doing better have better protection of user data and their policies informing users about how data is used are more clear and robust. They have stronger security practices as well so again we have a long way to get to where we want companies to be but the idea is that companies need to be clear with users about when they are using a service, whether it’s a telecommunication service, or whether it’s a social media platform, companies need to be clear about the ways in which their speech is restricted by the platform and the service who has power to block or take down my content under what circumstances. What ways can I appeal if something goes wrong? Are the companies making an effort to protect our rights and to think about their impact on our rights to try to prevent harm? We also look at stakeholder engagement, engaging with civil society, with vulnerable groups to understand how they are affecting the society. 

DRM. Some of the worst performing companies in the index are based in Asia and the Middle East. How do you think pressure can be built on these companies through international and local advocacy and activism?

RM: So it’s more challenging particularly for example in China; it is challenging because it’s very risky for the civil society to even exist in China but even with some of the more difficult companies, one way to exercise pressure is through investors and shareholders. Because there is a lot of international investment funds based in Europe, North America and elsewhere that invest in some of the poor performing companies. They are able to question them about their performances. Because the investment funds are investing people’s pensions and so on, people want their pensions to be supporting companies that reflect their values such as environmental values, and they don’t want to be investing in companies that are repressing people, so increasingly investors are asking tough questions from companies so that is certainly one way. Another way, in countries like Pakistan, there are a lot of internet service providers that are multinationals, like Telenor for example, which is a Norway based company operating in Pakistan. I know civil society groups have gone and talked to them about their practices and asked them to improve. The companies based in the Gulf that we cover in the index, Ooredoo and Etisalat, have actually gotten worse in the past year which is unfortunate. Those companies are a little hard to influence because they are partly state-owned but in a way for those types of companies it can be indirect pressure because those companies are operating often times in markets where the other multinationals also operate. So for example, let’s say here in Tunisia, you have Ooredoo but you also have Orange or in Burma and Myanmar you have Ooredoo and Telenor, and so if Orange and Telenor engage in much better practices and people begin to choose those companies over Ooredoo there may, over some time, be consumer pressure to get them to improve even if there is not much advocacy happening at the policy level in their home country. 

DRM: What’s your key takeaway from the RightsCon 2019 so far?

RM: This is a really incredible conference and there are so many people from so many different countries talking about a lot of issues…. My biggest takeaway is that we are in a very challenging time globally; civil society is under attack in a lot of the world. You have very bad leaders being elected including (in) my home country where the president is not supportive of human rights. The civil society in India is under great challenge and pressure as well after the recent election results there. This is a really troubling time in a lot of ways but even so when you come to RightsCon you feel the energy of all these groups working together and sharing ideas, coordinating on how to advance the cause of human rights online and offline, and how can we use technology to advance human rights to make our societies more inclusive, make our governments more accountable. There is a global movement of which RightsCon is a hub and I think as long as this global movement continues to get stronger and grow, I think in the long run, there is a lot of hope.

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