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Privacy 15 May 2018

Internet Companies Have More Work to Do on Privacy, Freedom of Expression, Report Says

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossTechnology Reporter

Top Internet, mobile, and telecom companies across the globe still have many steps they could take to better protect their users’ freedom of expression and privacy, a new report says.

The 2018 Corporate Accountability Index, released recently by Ranking Digital Rights, gave Google a top score of 63 among 22 companies rated for protecting freedom of expression and privacy. But with a perfect score being 100, all the companies rated fell far short, with most receiving failing grades, the group said.

The good news for users is that 17 of the 22 companies evaluated for the 2018 Index improved scores from last year in at least one area, and many had improvements in multiple areas. Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit research center tied to the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, rates the companies on 35 indicators.

“We’ve seen some improvement, but there’s a long way to go,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights project. “At the same time, some of the improvements we’ve seen have been genuinely meaningful.”

A second piece of good news for users: Some of the companies, particularly the rank-and-file employees, seem to pay attention to their rankings in consumer-focused studies, MacKinnon said during a recent panel discussion. “You benchmark companies, and actually, a lot of them care a lot,” she said.

After Google, the top scores in this year’s rankings were 61 for Microsoft, 59 for Oath, and 55 for Facebook, although the rankings were compiled before a recent series of moves by Facebook to protect user privacy in response to the Cambridge Analytica data leak.

Apple ranked in the middle of the pack for Internet and mobile companies, with a score of 44. The scores for Google and Microsoft both dropped slightly from the 2017 rankings, bucking the general trend of improvement.

Internet companies scored better than telecoms/Internet service providers, with the United Kingdom’s Vodafone scoring a 52 to take the top spot among telecoms. AT&T, from the United States, was second among telecoms with a score of 49.

Companies in Russia, China, and the Middle East scored the lowest. China’s Tencent scored 23, Russia’s Mail.ru scored 21, and China’s Baidu scored 17. On the telecom side, the United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat scored just an 8, and Qatar’s Ooredoo scored a 5.

Google and Apple didn’t response to requests for comment on their scores. Facebook declined to comment on its score, but a representative pointed to a series of blog posts on its new privacy tools.

The Corporate Accountability Index ranks companies on 35 indicators related to privacy and freedom of expression, including how they inform users of data breaches, whether they tell users about government requests for user information or account restrictions, and how they share user information with other organizations.

One of the goals of the index is to help users understand how their privacy and freedom of expression is affected when they use the world’s most popular Internet and telecom companies.

“When power is exercised on us, either by companies directly for their own business reasons, or by governments, or by other third parties that are using or manipulating these platforms, we need to know,” MacKinnon said. “We need to know who can exercise power over our digital lives, under what circumstances.

“We need to be able to understand who is exercising this power if we’re going to hold power accountable,” she added.

While MacKinnon said she was somewhat optimistic about improvements in the rankings, Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and tech ethicist, called for new regulations to protect user privacy and expression.

Most government policy now treats Internet services and social media outlets as a consumer good than can be purchased or declined, but new ways of looking at regulation are needed, he said. While many companies want to improve, there are some “unapologetic bad actors” in the tech industry, he added.

Although many tech companies want to be “seen as doing the right thing,” it’s difficult for users to put other kinds of pressure on them, said Dash, CEO of Frog Creek Software. It’s nearly impossible to boycott many Internet and social media companies because they can still create a profile of you even if you delete your account, he noted.

“There isn’t actually any meaningful way to opt out of Facebook for anybody in basically the developed world right now,” he said.

Promoting strong, technology-neutral data-privacy laws, privacy-by-design principles, and ethical data-collection and handling principles is a key approach to protecting and fostering online privacy. Read the privacy policy brief.

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