Researching ICT companies: A field guide for civil society researchers

Nathalie Marechal, University of Southern California; Sarah T. Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles

Information and communications technology (ICT) companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are vitally important to billions of users around the world, not only in their day-to-day personal and professional lives, but also in their ability to shape social and political reality. Yet there is a pervasive lack of clarity around the policies and practices that govern user engagement on these platforms and sites, and the values that undergird them. This information is of great importance to policy researchers and civil society advocates, particularly in the wake of numerous recent events that have put the relative power and opacity of ICT companies in the spotlight. Access to information about them is often incredibly difficult to obtain, when it is available at all. These difficulties are faced by many categories of people interested in researching ICT companies, from academics to journalists, and from civil society advocates to policy researchers.

In this white paper, we outline some of the challenges we have identified as being particularly acute for policy researchers, as well as strategies for working through (and around) those issues. Advocating for civil society, human rights, and democratic values today often requires understanding the role played by ICT companies in deciding what kinds of speech are allowed (or not) on various platforms, in complying (or not) with government requests to restrict content or for user information, and in lobbying governments to enact (or not) various laws and regulations. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies are expected to respect human rights even as nation-states retain primary responsibility for protecting human rights. As is true of many UN norms, the Guiding Principles lack a formal enforcement mechanism, so other, often soft measures have been employed in order to enact results, or even to simply gain information. Although often with various end goals in mind, journalists, researchers and global civil society organizations share the common need to know more about these practices, policies and internal guiding principles that influence the behavior and outcomes of platforms. For this reason, this disparate group with varying constituencies have developed shared techniques to obtain information about ICT companies’ policies and practices, and, importantly, to influence them. This includes sustaining demands for engagement, “naming and shaming,” shareholder advocacy, litigation, and more. These strategies all hinge on civil society groups knowing what companies are up to.

To read the full field guide, click here.

Cooperation or co-option? Intersectoral partnerships between privacy advocates and tech companies

Till Wascher

For years, privacy advocates had been speculating about a possible “Privacy Chernobyl” – a major scandal that would put the issue of surveillance on the global agenda and create a mass social movement against privacy intrusions committed by governments and corporations. In the summer of 2013, this speculation became reality. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents detailing the mass surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and its international partners caused – to stick to the nuclear disaster analogy – a temporary meltdown of public trust by citizens around the world. The series is based on the author’s dissertation on political communication tactics of the global privacy community for which he conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with activists from 14 countries. This third post in the series focuses he way in which the anti-surveillance movement partnered with large ICT companies rather than targeting them, what this alliance means for the future of privacy advocacy. Click here to read more.

Baidu in Thailand: the search for meaning

Sarah Logan and Brendan Molloy, Australian National University

Baidu, China’s largest search engine and one of its largest information technology companies, is on the move. In 2012 it announced plans to expand beyond Chinese borders and in 2014 began offering services in Vietnam, with similar ventures in Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt and Thailand. This project traces Baidu’s expansion into Thailand, focusing on its search product. In doing so it builds on Jiang’s work on Baidu and adds to a growing body of commentary on Chinese tech expansion abroad. Much of this commentary raises fears of the expansion of Chinese tech companies on the grounds that it will lead to censorship and access to vital industries and resources. Click here to read more.

The right to privacy in India

The right to privacy was recently questioned before the Indian Supreme Court, and the ruling on the boundaries of the right to privacy is expected soon. In preparation for the judgment, Centre for Communication Governance has put together this infographic based on their dataset of Supreme Court cases that have upheld the right to privacy over the last 63 years. This is to illustrate how rich the Indian privacy jurisprudence has been over these decades.  The background of the case can be found here, and the summary of the arguments made during the hearings is here. Centre for Communication Governance also comments on the questions being asked and the challenge before the Supreme Court here.

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