How ICT companies operate vis-à-vis human rights issues and the repertoire of company-oriented advocacy

Sarah T. Roberts and Nathalie Maréchal

It seems hard to believe that only a few years ago, asserting that private ICT companies were the “sovereigns of cyberspace,” as Rebecca MacKinnon put it in “Consent of the Networked” (2012), was a fairly new idea. Researching companies’ impact on human rights and pressuring them to amend their practices and provide greater transparencies is now a mainstay of digital rights advocacy, yet many researchers and activists struggle to apply their training and expertise in researching and lobbying governments to the private sector. At a time when network shutdowns, media manipulation, and cybersecurity are making headlines around the globe, it is more vital than ever for civil society to understand how companies make these consequential decisions, how they are implemented, what their effects are, and what kinds of advocacy efforts are most likely to have an impact.

With support from the Internet Policy Observatory, we (Sarah T. Roberts and Nathalie Maréchal) launched this research project to not only better understand how ICT companies operate vis-à-vis privacy, free expression, and other human rights issues, but also to investigate the epistemology of company research and the repertoire of company-oriented advocacy. This blog post is the second of four planned deliverables. The first was a roundtable discussion held on March 31 at RightsCon (more below); next, we plan to write a civil society-friendly white paper on company research and advocacy as well as a more formal academic paper on the topic. The rest of this blog post describes the RightsCon roundtable and sets the stage for the forthcoming white paper.

How to Listen So Companies Will Talk, And Talk So Companies Will Listen

On Friday, March 31st, eight speakers from a variety of sectors and global perspectives convened, alongside a full house of audience participants, at this year’s Brussels-based RightsCon. Participants included:

Moderated by Ranking Digital Rights’s Nathalie Maréchal, the event brought policy makers, academics and NGO leaders together to talk about their successes, as well as their difficulties, engaging in research related to ICT companies. The session was timely, as it coincided with RDR’s launch of their latest Corporate Accountability Index, covering 22 of the world’s most powerful internet, telecommunications, and mobile firms and their public, disclosed policies and commitments related to users’ freedom of expression and privacy. RDR’s 2017 report served as an excellent jumping-off place, as it is a powerful example of the kind of research that can be undertaken largely without deep corporate cooperation or access to a firm’s inner circle.

Following this baseline, each participant shared insights about his or her own research on internet and telecom firms and policy, describing how they have undertaken their work in the face of varying degrees of cooperation or blocking, and at various registers and levels, from company-specific to country- or region-specific.

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Do Chinese internet users need another Facebook? Probably not: An analysis of the regulatory and market conditions for the Chinese internet

2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant and PhD student at York University and researcher for Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, Lianrui Jia, is researching Post-WTO Internet policies in China – in particular, how the country is supporting and regulating its telecommunication and Internet industry. In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher she discusses the growing importance of China’s online companies both domestically and internationally, their ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party, and the prospects of U.S. internet companies’ re-entry into the Chinese market.

Your research focuses on media concentration in general and the political economy of Chinese internet companies in particular. Describe the rise of Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu in the last five years in terms of revenue, traffic and user numbers. How do these companies fare in comparison with their U.S. counterparts?

Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) are now the biggest three Chinese Internet companies. Due to vertical and horizontal integration these three have become behemoths in their respective areas (Baidu in search, Alibaba in e-commerce, and Tencent in social media and gaming). All three are public companies listed on NASDAQ, and they have generated some pretty staggering numbers. Revenue wise, BAT have achieved, on average, nearly three folds of revenue growth from 2011 to 2015, with Baidu’s revenue growing from 2,303 million to 10,247.6 million (357.8% increase), Alibaba from 3181.9 million to 12,293 million (280.5% increase), and Tencent from 4528 million to 102,863 million RMB (261% increase). Alibaba’s IPO was the world’s biggest at the time it went public in September 2014, valuing at 25 billion. On September 5th, 2016, Tencent became the most valuable company in Asia with a market capitalization of 255 billion, surpassing Alibaba’s 250 billion. Compared to their U.S counterparts Google, Amazon, and Facebook, BAT’s market capitalization is substantially smaller, although they have been slowly catching up amidst the fluctuations.

In terms of users, Tencent’s online chat service QQ and mobile messaging app WeChat had 853.1 and 697 million monthly active users (MAU) in 2015, respectively. For these two products combined, there was a roughly 500 million MAUs increase in the last three years. In 2015, Baidu occupied 85.7% of the search engine market with 657 million monthly active users. Alibaba had 350 million customers in 2015, up from 231 million in 2012. This substantial growth is underpinned by the growth in Internet population in China. In 2011, there were 513 million users online; in 2015, there were 688 million. In particular, the number of mobile internet users has grown exponentially: in 2011, only 69.3% were mobile users but in 2015, 90.1% of internet users were mobile users as well.

However, the most notable difference between these Chinese companies and their U.S. counterparts is that Chinese companies derive almost all of their revenue from the domestic market. In other words, Chinese internet companies are not as global as the U.S ones, in terms of revenue distribution, users, or product reach. For example, Google, in 2015, generated 54% of its revenue internationally, and nearly half of Facebook’s revenue (49.9%) comes from markets outside the U.S.

To increase revenue, Chinese companies have begun to expand globally. As CGCS Internet Policy Observatory affiliate Sarah Logan pointed out in a Chinese companies’ investments outside China have faced scrutiny from the public and regulators due to the companies’ close ties to the Communist Party. Do you think public companies such as Baidu and Tencent, whose executives have to answer to international shareholders, can and will change or rethink the nature of their relationship with the Chinese government in order to further grow internationally?

Sarah Logan’s piece is an excellent study into the conundrum that Chinese Internet companies have to face in the course of global expansion: the process is always embedded in and influenced by geopolitics. I do not think companies like Baidu and Tencent will change or rethink their relationship with the Chinese government, at least not in a drastic way. First of all, the home market is too important. Over 90 percent of revenue for Baidu and Tencent comes from mainland China. In their annual report in 2015, Alibaba did not report any international revenue because it was too insignificant. Their dominance in the domestic market hinges upon their experience in dealing with the government for well over a decade, and they will not risk or break it for the sole purpose of gaining a larger foothold in overseas market.

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Is internet freedom a tool for democracy or authoritarianism?

//How can the internet act as a tool that promotes both democracy and authoritarianism? Elizabeth Stoycheff and Erik C. Nisbet explore this topic in their latest piece from The Conversation.

The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.

In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realize television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.

This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.

Not so fast.

In recent years, President Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. President Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.

This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.

The U.S. has made increasing internet access around the world a foreign policy priority. This policy was supported by both Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.

On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.

However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.

And some do.

But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an…

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“THE ISSUE OF INTERNET FREEDOM AND NATIONAL SECURITY IS NOT ONLY AN ETHIOPIAN PROBLEM”

//In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha, deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) Ethiopia, discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

Ethiopia has the second largest population of all African countries, yet its internet penetration rate is only 12 percent. Still, the country has arguably one of the most sophisticated internet regulatory regimes in the region. 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha is a cyber law and policy researcher, and deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia. In an interview with fellow participant and 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, Halefom discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

 

With over 80 ethnic groups and more than 90 languages Ethiopia is the most diversified country on the African continent. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to internet content regulation in your country?

The internet is the greatest tool for advancing causes of democracy and civil liberties. However, it is not without challenges and problems. When it comes to content, the internet provides unlimited access to useful resources, while at the same time, it also serves as a platform for harmful or illegal content such as hate speech, sexually explicit content especially child pornography, defamatory statements, terrorist propaganda, extremist, radicalizing, and racist materials. While recognizing that the benefits of the internet far outweigh its negative…

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