Projects Ranking Digital Rights and Tracking Corporate Censorship funded by Knight Foundation | MIT Center for Civic Media

Projects Ranking Digital Rights and Tracking Corporate Censorship funded by Knight Foundation

We're here at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference, where Alberto Ibarguen and John Bracken have just announced the winners of the latest news challenge, which asked the question "How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?" Sands Fish and I were there to liveblog the presentation of grantees.

The latest Knight Foundation grants have funded two projects to keep track of the behaviour of technology companies and hold them accountable on digital rights and censorship.

OnlineCensorship.org, led by Jillian C York at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Onlinecensorship.org crowdsources reports of takedowns and account de-activations on privately owned platforms. As our conversations increasingly take place in the online public sphere, our speech is increasingly regulated by private companies who are making the rules.

Jillian shares a few examples of this kind of censorship:

These companies make the rules and we just live in their world. Companies' values are all over the place: some sites that take down nudity leave up death threats. OnlineCensorship.org takes in reports from users of Youtube, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. They ask that users provide screenshots and other evidence to make their data as robust as possible.

Assisted by a team of academics and advisors, they plan to visualize the information and provide aggregate reports on how these companies are defining ideas like hate speech. Hate Speech: Most of the online communities ban this, and we may or may not agree with them, but whatever our view, we ought to know how they're defining it. We also need to raise public awareness of corporate limitations on speech, as well as engage with the companies to help them address online censorship thoughtfully.

Ranking Digital Rights is a project led by Rebecca McKinnon at the New America Foundation to develop a system for benchmarking and ranking the world's most powerful technology companies for how well they protect the privacy of users.

Rebecca starts out by reminding us that we have to actively work to make sure the Internet evolves to something that is compatible with democracy and individual rights. This requires us to ensure that governments, who are regulating and surveilling our activities on the Internet, are accountable. We also need to make sure that the companies who shape our work are held accountable.

Rebecca points to existing efforts to benchmark what governments have been doing. Organizations like Freedom House and the Web Index provide benchmarks on government performance with digital rights. These reports don't look at the "sovereigns of cyberspace," the companies and CEO who shape the software and terms of service that influence our online experience, not just in the US but also globally.

To do a better job of benchmarking companies on Internet freedom, the Ranking Digital Rights project is learning from methods and tactics of Behind the Brands and the Access to Medicine Index. There is evidence that companies respond to these metrics and compete to improve. Together with Sustainalytics, they're working to create a ranking that can provide meaningful information to consumers to users, and also to the investors who have the ear of CEOs and boards.

Rebecca's organization is now getting ready to do a pilot on their methodology. She asks us to go to rankingdigitalrights.org, check out the methodology, and offer feedback on whether they're doing things the right way.

Indicators include:

  • Human rights impact assessment: Before a telecommunications company and does a deal with the government, are they doing a human rights survey?
  • Transparency about requests from governments for users' information
  • Terms of service: do they have them, and are they good
  • Privacy Policies: do they have them, and what kinds of policies do they have in place?
  • Security standards: What kinds of standards are these companies implementing, if they are implementing any at all?

The team is are looking for partners to help with data visualization, and to engage with their data.