Ranking Digital Rights as Media Reform: Strategies and Tactics

IMG_9466On Wednesday, April 25, 2018, Ranking Digital Rights launched its new, and third, 2018 Corporate Accountability Index. Long name, sounds like a complicated topic, I know. Why bother reading?

Because this Index addresses an issue that affects you. It’s about threats to your fundamental human rights in the digital sphere. And the reason why you were able to mock Zuckerberg’s appearance in Congress recently, is precisely what this Index is all about: companies like Facebook not communicating transparently about how they respect your right to privacy online.

This post looks at

1) The launch event of the RDR 2018 Corporate Accountability Index and key results

2) Strategies and tactics of reform and advocacy to learn from the case Ranking Digital Rights


1) Launch of the 2018 Corporate Accountability Index

In a nutshell: The Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Corporate Accountability Index evaluates 22 of the world’s most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies – for example Facebook, AT&T and Apple – on their disclosed commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. The Index data and analysis are used by companies to improve their own policies and practices, hence the project aims at encouraging self-governance by the industry. Moreover, the empirical data is meant to inform the work of human rights advocates, policymakers, and – new this year – responsible investors.

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The overall main finding of this year’s Index is:

“Companies lack transparency about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy, exposing users to undisclosed risk” (Ranking Digital Rights). While 17 of the companies evaluated for the 2018 Index made meaningful improvements compared to last year’s Index, most still fell short of disclosing information to users about the governance structures they have in place for their digital platforms and services that affect human rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

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Year on year comparison: changes of scores in 2018 compared to 2017

If you’re interested, watch the launch event at Columbia University yourself:

Behind the background of the current scandal around the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with Facebook, indicator P7 (users’ control over their own user information) of the Index is particularly timely and relevant: it assesses whether companies clearly disclose to users what options they have to control the company’s collection, retention and use of their user information.

In January, when RDR assessed Facebook’s disclosure about how users can control the company’s collection, retention and use of their data, Facebook was ranked last on this indicator (P7). Now, “Facebook Inc. is digging out of one of its biggest crises yet. The personal data of up to 87 million users, mostly in the U.S., was obtained by an analytics firm that, among its other work, helped elect President Donald Trump” (Fortune, 4/10/2018).

At the launch on Wednesday, Rebecca MacKinnon, director of RDR, noted that by now, Facebook has released additional information. However, MacKinnon said her team assumes that Facebook’s score would have probably not improved a lot even with this new information disclosed.

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Nevertheless, let’s not focus only on Social Media platforms, RDR is also evaluating telecommunications companies. The team found that Vodafone, AT&T and other telecommunications service providers worldwide are actually performing much worse when it comes to disclosure about practices affecting their customers’ privacy. Only one of the ten telecommunications companies ranked this year scored more than 50 percent: Vodafone, scored 52 percent, thanks to improved transparency of governance practices and how it handles government network shutdown orders. In terms of data security, a shocking finding is that Vodafone was the only company in the Index to clearly disclose how it handles data breaches.

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RDR aims to build an ecosystem for a sustainable digital society

During the Q&A session at the end of the launch event, MacKinnon made it clear that the project goal is not necessarily to raise more and more funding and eventually be able to assess every single company out there. Instead, RDR aims to support an ecosystem of other organizations and projects that do similar assessments applied to other regions, companies or sectors themselves. This is in line with the project’s open-access and multistakeholder-collaboration approach (more on this in section 2): the methodology that RDR developed to evaluate companies for the Corporate Accountability Index is available online for other NGOs or researchers to adapt and apply to their own project. For example, the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, already applied the methodology to the Indian market, and just recently, the methodology was adapted and applied to the Arab region. RDR seeks to support an ecosystem that does not depend on only one organization and its ability to fundraise.

For the future, Rebecca MacKinnon hopes to see companies really stand up and “articulate how they want their companies to support and sustain the kind of society that we want, to make a commitment to support freedom of expression, to commit to support and build technologies and businesses that are compatible with the kind of accountable governance and open society that we assume they want their children to live in, just as they’re committing to clean energy and all that kind of things – we need sustainability commitments for democracy and open society, and we’re not seeing that.”

RDR uses this ecosystem metaphor to make the point that a commitment to sustainability is not only needed for our physical environment, but also for the growing digital environment we move in. Sustainable business in relation to our physical environment has become the norm. Today, companies commonly engage in extensive efforts to take environmental and social responsibility for their business activities, all under the roof of taking Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). However, most companies do not pay the same respect to our digital environment.

The results of the Corporate Accountability Index show that all Internet and telecommunications companies analyzed are lacking adequate disclosure regarding to what extent they are putting users’ privacy and freedom of expression at risk. Companies do not sufficiently inform users about compliance with government requests to shut down websites, remove contents online or to give access to user information. If someone holds companies accountable for their practices affecting human rights, they are pressured to communicate more transparently, as the latest case of Facebook showed. “If international legal and treaty frameworks cannot adequately protect human rights, then other types of governance and accountability mechanisms are urgently needed” (MacKinnon, R., Maréchal, N. & Kumar, P. (2016): Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet. Centre for International Governance Innovation and Catham House).

Publishing a ranking like the Corporate Accountability Index is one way of holding companies accountable. However, I was surprised to find that one day after the official launch of the new Index, despite the current public attention for the issue of digital rights thanks to the Facebook scandal, there was no reporting on the new Index to be found online. If media, and with that the public, don’t pick up the results and messages of the new Index, public pressure on companies remains low and I think it’s questionable, to what extent they are actually held accountable by the Index.

2) Ranking Digital Rights as Media Reform: Strategies and Tactics

The Corporate Accountability Index serves as an important tool to increase public pressure on Internet and telecommunications companies and the research results provide empirical and factual evidence for companies’ lack of disclosure regarding practices that affect users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression. This evidence can then be used by advocacy groups and policymakers to advocate for national governance that requires companies to be more transparent. Besides this, Rebecca MacKinnon states that RDR publishes a ranking in order to equip companies with very direct answers to what they can do to improve – what exactly does RDR want them to do differently? RDR seeks to encourage self-governance by companies, providing them with a framework that gives them the tools to do better (see how the methodology categories, indicators and elements provide concrete guidance). Hence, the ranking also offers companies a platform to communicate their success and build their public image as well as monitor their yearly progress or compare themselves to competitors.

With the tactics of emphasizing digital (consumer) rights, corporate accountability through measuring and benchmarking, and a multi-stakeholder approach, the case of RDR Corporate Accountability Index is an interesting example of how a non-profit research initiative seeks to advocate for a more democratic and free media environment in the global digital networked media ecosystem.

2.1 Focus: Digital Rights

The Corporate Accountability Index ranks companies in three different categories: governance, privacy and freedom of expression.

  • Governance: This category evaluates to what extent companies demonstrate that they have governance processes in place to ensure that they respect the human rights to freedom of expression and privacy.
  • Freedom of Expression: Within this category, researchers look at the disclosed policies and practices of companies and analyze whether they demonstrate concrete ways in which they respect the right to freedom of expression of users. For instance, companies should demonstrate a strong public commitment to transparency in terms of how they respond to governments’ and private entities’ demands.
  • Privacy: This category refers to a company’s disclosed policies and practices regarding concrete ways in which it respects the right to privacy of users, as articulated in major international human rights documents.

In the definition of all indicators in these three categories, the project references the International Bill of Human Rights that, in turn, includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR). Another important foundation for the Index are the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that place responsibility for human rights not only for governments but also for companies, coupled with the European Commission (EC)’s ICT Sector Guide on Implementing those UN Principles.

RDR operationalizes the elusive concept of digital rights and anchors that work in major international human rights agreements. By doing so, RDR could be said to change, or guide, the ICT corporations, and other stakeholders, to see their mission in serving citizens and their rights, not merely as user-consumers.

In terms of the strategy of changing the media, the tactics are about creating the standards for change (what companies need to do to improve?) and conducting research (how are companies doing right now?). The core tactic for change, however, is to frame the issue as citizens’ digital rights, solidly based on global and international conventions and agreements, and to make it concretely examinable, for any stakeholder to apply and advocate further.

2.2 Methodology: Ranking for Accountability

A part of the strategy of using research is to make a problem visible, tangible, often quantifiable; another aspect is to use it as a tool for accountability. Key characteristics of RDR are that it is a global effort, that it focuses on public available company communication on user rights, its methodology is open access, and consequently its research can be replicated by anyone.

Unlike some complex formulas, such as that of the Freedom House, calculating RDR positions for companies is a relatively simple task, and makes the index transparent. Companies receive a cumulative score of their performance across all Index categories, and results show how companies performed by each category and indicator.

RDR does not conduct the analysis by employing a set of experts to assess situations based on a variety of sources, it trains volunteers around the world to participate in the project. It has also instituted a seven-step process (see p. 6) that includes peer review as well as company feedback on the results, for quality control.

So what is the proposed impact of knowing what corporations disclose? The RDR Theory and Strategy text notes that by setting out a clear pathway for companies to improve their policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy through concrete, measurable steps, RDR aims to make it easier for companies to take the recommended actions rather than asking them to come up with the answers on their own.

The RDR team notes that ranking for accountability is a necessity, but that RDR is really the first step in the process. If there is no transparency about what policies a corporation follows, there cannot be accountability. That is why RDR focuses on corporate disclosures of policies, not on why or whether corporations follow their policies, or why some policies are or are not in place.

The RDR methodology in and of itself is a strategy: Based on international, broadly recognized guidelines; transparent in the development process; extensive in quality control; and open access to anyone to use.

The RDR team is explicit in having created the framework for a dual purpose: both to conduct the evaluation themselves, but also to set a set of standards that a broader community can use.

2.3 Process: Multi-stakeholder Approach

Konferenz Farbe-01Media reformists may not only seek to monitor and influence media organizations, but also provide alternatives to existing practices. This might not seem to directly apply to the Ranking Digital Rights project. Yet, if the strategy is translated as providing an option, an alternative, to ways of assessing digital rights, it is at the core of RDR. The alternative here is both filling the gap of knowledge, but also doing it in an inclusive manner, and serving many stakeholders. Both the open access to the theory, strategy, and methodology, to the the multi-step, multi-stakeholder process of research, and to the data itself, set RDR apart from many other rankings in the field of the media and communication technologies.

The Corporate Accountability Index is participatory in terms of access and process. RDR informs companies it assesses throughout the duration of research. The process plays a central role in the RDR strategy. Dialogues with corporations allow for early notifications of policy changes that might affect the ranking, as well as quality control feedback. The written recommendations RDR provides to companies in form of individual company cards in the annual index report are good examples for the more passive advocacy that RDR is engaging in. This strategy also highlights another principle of RDR, promotion of corporate self-governance and accountability of many actors, as opposed to government-driven measures that might eventually restrict digital rights. RDR is not serving a mere watchdog function but relies on the strategy of networked, expansive form of reform.

The advisory council of the project includes representatives of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, Human Rights Watch, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Danish Institute of Human Rights, and the current funders and partners of the project are the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Internet Sans Frontières, the Centre for Internet and Society, and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society.

RDR is envisioned to be a collaborative project, relying on other non-governmental organizations to utilize the information they provide for more direct advocacy campaigning.

Outlook and Lessons learned from RDR

RDR is at the same time a typical and a unique example of reform: It utilizes a tested, conventional approach of ranking media organizations, while addressing the current, complex critical juncture and the related powerful position of intermediaries, with its unique, concrete operationalization of the often vague concept of `digital rights’.

RDR focuses on being both the information source and the alternative solution to an accountability  mechanism, it leaves most of the advocacy work proper to other organizations.

The Ranking Digital Rights project is housed at New America, a “think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age”. The think tank was founded in 1999 and has ever since been committed to finding solutions to public problems by nurturing public conversation, developing ideas and policies to address public problems, creating and testing new technologies and using media to engage audiences. One could then argue that one goal of New America is to influence public policy on Internet governance. The indicators defined in the methodology are openly accessible, seeking to contribute to setting standards and providing empirical, “actionable data to stakeholders, including investors, human rights advocates” (MacKinnon, R., Maréchal, N. & Kumar, P., 2016) and policy makers.

RDR works on formalizing transparency of internal formal and informal governance. RDR is connecting human rights with consumer rights, creating an operationalization of digital rights.

The ecosystem metaphor that the Ranking Digital Rights team mentioned in several occasions may just be a core lesson for any media reform activity. Organizations of the mass media era are coming together with, or incorporating, ICT-related challenges to their advocacy palette. An ecosystem signifies interconnectedness as well as calls for responsibility for future developments.

Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index might just offer a model for advocacy for other aspects of communication, such as access, availability and participation.


Thinking about RDR and public advocacy:

If there was a campaign launched to educate consumers about the Index results and raise awareness for the broad lack of transparency in the internet and telecommunications service provider industry, it could look like this:

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Using irony and memes that highlight specific Index results (here 2017 Index) in a way that personifies companies might be one way to catch the attention of especially younger users in generation Z for this timely issue.

My point is, there are different ways how to use the data provided by RDR for public information campaigns and public advocacy, but what is important is that someone actually makes use of this valuable information that RDR puts out there.

RDR highlights that we must all work together to build legal, regulatory, and corporate standards for the protection and advancement of human rights in the digital age.

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