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.