by Alan Burkitt-Gray
Six leading operators plus Nokia have joined with Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo in an initiative to protect global freedom of expression on the internet and digital privacy rights.
The seven companies – the operators are Millicom, Orange, Telefónica, Telenor, Telia Company and Vodafone – have joined the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which was set up in 2008.
"The challenges posed by online extremism, surveillance, cross-border data laws and government-ordered network shutdowns cannot be solved by governments alone," said Mark Stephens, the international human rights lawyer who is the independent chair of GNI.
The move means that all operators, with a combined customer base of 1.5 billion in more than 120 countries, will now be covered by the standards and user rights protections to which all GNI company members commit.
Over-the-top (OTT) content and social media companies Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo were the only previous members of the GNI before today’s expansion.
The GNI includes 35 human rights and press freedom groups, along with academics and investor members. Its aim is to strengthen protections for global digital rights.
Stephens added: "GNI continues to build an unrivalled multi-stakeholder platform of companies and civil society actors, all committed to working with governments on constructive solutions to uphold and respect the rights of free expression and privacy in the digital realm."
Nokia’s head of human rights, Laura Okkonen, said: "Today, as we embark on the next chapter in the evolution of GNI, we are excited to help realise the vision of internet, telecommunications and vendor companies working together in the same human rights initiative. We look forward to building on this work together with our GNI colleagues, as we continue an active and transparent dialogue with all our stakeholders."
Okkonen also chairs the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (ID), a group of operators and vendors that have worked together to build standards for freedom of expression and privacy in the telecommunications sector in the context of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In recent months the GNI has taken a number of steps to defend internet freedom, including urging Democratic Republic of the Congo to stop blocking social media and expressing concern about Facebook being blocked in Nauru, and internet access being restricted in Cameroon. It criticised the US Department of Homeland Security’s moves to require non-US citizens to provide passwords to their social media accounts as a condition of entering the country.