We need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0

FREE EXPRESSION IN WEB 2.0

This is a call for a Freedom of Expression league table for Myspace, Youtube and other Web 2.0 spaces. Privacy International has shown the way with their Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies, which lists the best and the worst privacy practices across the full spectrum of social networking, email & search sites. But with the emergence of web 2.0 sites as spaces for civic dialogue there's a critical need to test their commitment to free expression and the exchange of ideas.

UDHR VERSUS TOS

The problem lies in the radical difference between the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the realities of the Terms of Service agreements we sign up to when using online services. Article 19 of the UDHR says "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers", whereas a service like YouTube will assert the right for the company to remove content that it considers to be 'inappropriate'.

PSEUDO-PUBLIC SPACES

Despite the way that MySpace and YouTube are marketed as communities they are actually corporate spaces. As I pointed out in my post on social networking and social change: "Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners". Of course, the role of commerical companies is to make a profit, and they also have legal liabilities to content with around issues like copyright. But the debate around the role of internet companies in China has shown that it's not OK for these powerful corporates to ignore the human rights consequences of their commercial decisions.

PRIVACY INTERNATIONAL

In my opinion, the Privacy International report gives us a great model for how to tackle these issues. Their analysis employs a methodology comprising around twenty core parameters and was compiled using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives. Although they say that "we have been surprised by the number of social networking sites which are taking some of these issues quite seriously" it's notable that "not one of the ranked organizations achieved a 'green' status" (where green means privacy-friendly and privacy enhancing).

privacy rankings

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

Although it's fascinating to read the detail of the differences between, say, Bebo and Hi5, i think the most worrying aspect of their report is the overall trend of a 'race to the bottom' in corporate surveillance of customers. In their Key Findings they report The current frenzy to capture ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim, and the opportunity to create market differentiators based on responsible privacy may diminish unless those avenues are explored immediately.

PRIVATISED CENSORSHIP

I fear that the same threats exist to legitimate free expression in the Web 2.0 spaces, where commercial imperatives could drive companies to summarily remove 'objectionable' content, especially if they are pressured to do so by governments or other powerful corporations. This could also throttle the use of these spaces for any campaigning, which is a trend led by the users themselves (see for example the innovative uses of YouTube & MySpace for human rights work and social organising ). The recent Open Net Initiative conference on global internet filtering highlighted the growing privatisation of censorship; as the BBC's Bill Thompson says "Perhaps it's time for the Open Net Initiative to have a look at filtering policies at Facebook, Bebo and MySpace as well as Burma, Iran and Saudi Arabia".

USERS FIGHT BACK?

In the longer run, the anwer may come from angry users who expect to be able to freely express themselves in the social spaces that they helped to create. After all, it's the users who add the valaue and revenue potential to these sites via their content and participation, yet no user has ever received a dividend from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid for YouTube or MySpace. But for there to be mass pressure in favour of internet rights, we need to raise the free expression issues in the way that Privacy International is doing for privacy and data protection. As P.I. also point out, the critical issue is not what's on paper but what the company's actual (privacy) practices. Who's going to lead the way on this for Freedom of Expression?

P.S. CORPORATE COMPLICITY

In my opinion, it's no coincidence that the title of the Privacy International report ('A Race to the Bottom') is the same term used by Human Rights Watch in their report on Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. The overt political censorship of the Chinese authorities and the invisible loss of privacy and fair expression in the commerical enviromnent of the West are two sides of the same coin. Defending the internet against one implies defending against the other, especially as the same corporations are often the critical actors in both.