Companies should defend digital rights within the COVID-19 period


The COVID-19 disaster has highlighted – and intensified – our dependence on digital applied sciences, with social-distancing rules forcing individuals to take their work, training, and private relationships totally on-line. But, as governments enact sweeping emergency measures, together with to fight disinformation and hint the contacts of contaminated individuals, the disaster has additionally created a critical risk to digital freedom.

For nearly a decade, digital freedom has been declining globally, largely owing to the proliferation of mass surveillance and the manipulation of political discourse. The pandemic might speed up this course of, because it provides governments a compelling justification for forcing corporations inside their jurisdiction to regulate content material and hand over knowledge.

To make sure, tech corporations have a task to play in making certain that individuals obtain correct data, particularly in the course of the present “infodemic.” And widespread contact tracing, reminiscent of by means of Bluetooth-enabled apps, might assist nations to reopen their economies extra safely – a chance that even some staunch civil libertarians recognise.

But controlling content material and handing consumer knowledge over to governments is a slippery slope to censorship and surveillance, together with of journalists and human rights defenders. These are grave violations of civil liberties, and tech corporations ought to watch out for blindly acceding to authorities calls for that may facilitate them.

Yet pushing again towards such calls for is just not straightforward, and disputes between the non-public and public sectors over knowledge sharing have usually been contentious. That is why, in 2008, the Global Network Initiative (GNI), whose board I chair, developed a set of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. Grounded in worldwide regulation and overseen by the GNI, these ideas purpose to information corporations on the way to deal with requests from governments to censor content material, prohibit entry to communications providers, or share consumer knowledge.

Every two years, corporations taking part within the GNI are independently assessed on their progress in implementing the Principles. The newest assessments of 11 tech and telecom corporations, although carried out earlier than the pandemic, present beneficial classes for corporations making an attempt to navigate new pressures – well-intended or in any other case – from governments.

The first lesson is that Benjamin Franklin’s dictum that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is as true for human rights as it’s for human well being (or fireplace security, which is what Franklin had in thoughts). While no person can predict the long run, corporations can make use of due diligence to determine censorship and surveillance dangers and avert or mitigate them. Nokia’s course of for evaluating gear gross sales and Microsoft’s inclusion of legal professionals in its enterprise teams to help it on defending customers’ rights exemplify this approach.

Second, rising transparency is all the time worthwhile, irrespective of how difficult the circumstances. For instance, gag orders usually prohibit corporations from disclosing details about nationwide safety requests. But the GNI’s assessments present that corporations can push again, reminiscent of by difficult such orders in court docket, combating legal guidelines that allow governments to obscure their surveillance actions, and rising transparency in their very own reporting.

The third lesson is that corporations can do extra to maintain communication networks accessible. Restricting such networks threatens emergency providers, limits entry to important public-health data, and blocks the supply of life-saving telemedicine, making it a very harmful coverage throughout a pandemic. Yet government-ordered community disruptions have gotten more and more frequent.

Six case research, protecting seven nations, present that such orders are sometimes facilitated by lacking or insufficient governing laws. Moreover, corporations might really feel they’ve little selection however to conform, whether or not due to a scarcity of recourse to authorized means or credible safety dangers to staff.

Yet corporations have managed to withstand verbal shutdown orders, pushing governments to subject signed and dated written orders that cite the related authorized provisions. Some have achieved this by requiring that such orders be escalated to senior administration. Some have additionally engaged immediately with the authorities to persuade them to maintain disruptions slender, affecting a selected web site or service, moderately than your complete community.

A fourth lesson is that the perfect defence towards undue authorities strain is powerful insurance policies and procedures. Governments usually have compelling causes – a pandemic, terrorism, little one exploitation, and cybercrime, to call just a few – to strain corporations handy over knowledge. Companies want a transparent and dependable system for coping with such requests, anchored in worldwide human rights regulation, to make sure that efforts to assist tackle safety dangers don’t allow the suppression of freedom of expression and the violation of customers’ privateness. The GNI assessments additionally present perception into how corporations can adapt their responses to totally different jurisdictions.

As governments worldwide push expertise corporations to place their knowledge to make use of within the battle towards COVID-19, oversight and accountability are extra essential than ever. Instead of conceding that an efficient pandemic response requires infringing freedom of expression and privateness rights, corporations should recognise that civil liberties are essential enablers of world well being, and act accordingly – even when governments don’t.