Thursday, October 30, 2008

InterNETional Law

The BBC is reporting that Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have signed a global code of conduct promising to offer better protection for online free speech and against official intrusion.

This agreement, called the
Global Network Initiative (GNI), is a group of technology companies and non-governmental organizations that have worked together to build a framework for this code of conduct. The current list of members can be found here.

It's interesting to note that the
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - a premier organization fighting to secure online rights and privacy - is a participating member in this initiative. To me, this implies that the GNI may be more than just a public relations stunt by internet companies.

The GNI is still a work in progress, with mostly principles and guidelines having been agree upon. No reporting or enforcement has been established yet.

The GNI provides for these in the future.
What's interesting is that the GNI specifically refers to international law for standards in their code of conduct.

Let's run through EIL's big three questions:


The internet is a worldwide phenomenon.

That is precisely the problem.

Internet users in radically different nations can communicate with each other directly and often without limitation.

Internet companies find value in offering their services to customers around the world.

For example, internet companies like
Yahoo and Google have found it profitable to set up subsidiary companies around the world.

The problem occurs when these multinational companies hold users in different nations to disparate standards.

To be fair, it's not Google's fault that China has a different standard of online privacy than Sweden.

It does leave these multinational companies open to charges of abuse or even open to legal liability.

Is there anything these companies can do to protect themselves in the hodge-podge legal world in which they operate?

Yes, by establishing codes of conduct, companies can influence government efforts directed against internet users and these companies create a form of protection for themselves.


The GNI specifically references three major declarations of human rights:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

Specifically, the GNI pulls its definition for Freedom of Expression from Article 19 of the UDHR and Article 19 of the ICCPR.

Article 19 of the UDHR states:

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.

This is the very nearly the exact language used in the GNI.

Article 19 of the ICCPR states:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals. [emphasis added]

By specifically referencing Article 19 of the ICCPR, members of the GNI have given themselves an escape clause. If it's in a nation's interest, they can declare any type of expression as dangerous to national security, order, morals.

It's a pretty big escape clause.

However, further language in the GNI limits this clause somewhat.

The GNI continues, saying that government restrictions should comply with international human rights law. Also, government action should be necessary and proportionate to the relevant purpose.

In the end notes attached to the GNI Principles, the GNI note that Article 19(3) of the ICCPR is to be read within the context of further interpretations of international human rights bodies. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (Johannesburg Principles) are all specifically mentioned as authorities that should be referenced for determining the scale and appropriateness of government action.

An example of how these authorities limit governmental actions can be take from the Johannesburg Principles. National Security limitations do not include protecting a government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, or to conceal information about the functioning of its public institutions, or to entrench a particular ideology, or to suppress industrial unrest.

Source: Johannesburg Principles, Principle 2(b)

Lastly, the GNI takes its definition of Privacy from Article 12 of the UDHR and Article 17 of the ICCPR.

Article 12 of the UDHR states:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

This language is echoed in Article 17 of the ICCPR.

The GNI utilizes this language almost word for word to define privacy.

Again, the GNI recognizes that a right to privacy may need to be restricted in narrow circumstances. These restrictions should be consistent with international human rights standards.

The GNI fails to define what authorities can define and interpret the human rights law relating to privacy.

It is clear that the GNI relies heavily on international legal principles and standards to generate it's voluntary code of conduct.

Nations will still be able to limit and control what their populace reads and writes online, but the area which they control may be limited to specific purposes as defined by international human rights law.


Will the GNI prevent a political journalist from being arrested in China?


Will the GNI help conceal the identities of feminists in the Middle East?


The GNI will make it harder for governments around the world to oppress their populations, but the GNI will not prevent that oppression from ever occurring.

The GNI makes it less likely that GNI member companies will cooperate with nations on privacy invasions.

Here's how this might work.

For the individual, the GNI does not give a private right of action. In other words, you cannot sue Google just because they violate the GNI.

But if you are suing Google under an existing right of action, you can use the GNI as evidence of commitments Google took upon itself.

These corporate codes of conduct act as evidence of a commitment – a standard the corporations are trying to realize. Courts may find it reasonable for users to rely on such public statements of principles when weighing liability.

Because the members of the GNI have voluntarily assumed these standards, they have assumed potential liability when they violate these standards.

These companies could lose lots of money by not living up to their word.

And the one thing companies hate to do is lose money.

Employees fired for following the GNI may be able to sue for wrongful termination. Customers could use the GNI as evidence of a reasonable expectation of privacy in lawsuits

So when censorship and invasion of privacy issues arise, GNI members will have to calculate the financial costs of breaking their own word.

And that calculation makes them a little more likely to protect the privacy of you and me.