Why no one will join the Global Network Initiative

I’ve posted a long article on Forbes.com this morning on the Global Network Initiative. A non-profit group aimed at improving human rights though the agency of information technology companies, GNI has never really gotten off the ground.

Since its formal launch in 2008, following two years of negotiations among tech companies, human rights groups and academics, not a single company has agreed to join beyond the original members–Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

This despite considerable pressure from supporters of GNI, including Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. Indeed, in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere and the seminal role played by social media and other IT, a full-court press has been launched against Facebook and Twitter in particular for failing to sign up.

The tone of the criticism hardly seems designed to encourage new members to join. (In The Huffington Post, Amy Lee asks simply, “Why won’t Twitter and Facebook sign on for free speech on the Internet?”)

Why indeed.

The article reviews the troubled history of GNI and its complex, incomplete, and worrisome organizational structure, which gives considerable power to NGOs to shape the policies and practices of participating companies. (That features is especially worrisome, as many of the NGOs are traditional human rights organizations with little or no experience dealing with IT.)

Participating companies, among other commitments, must submit to bi-annual “assessments” of their compliance with GNI principles, conducted by assessors certified by GNI’s board.

Details aside, there is a more fundamental question worth asking here. Why are technology companies being asked to influence (one might say interfere with) public policy and local laws of other countries? GNI requires not only that participants resist efforts by repressive governments to censor content or to force disclosure of private information of their citizens, but also that they actively lobby these governments, to “engage government officials to promote the rule of law and the reform of laws, policies and practices that infringe on freedom of expression and privacy.”

Freedom of expression and privacy are worthwhile goals, but isn’t it the job of a country’s own citizens to petition their governments for change? And if those citizens are suppressed, isn’t it the job of the global community, operating through political and trade organizations such as the U.N. and the WTO, to lobby for change? Why is foreign policy being outsourced to Facebook and Twitter?

Perhaps it’s because national governments won’t do it. But the demur by tech companies to take on the job is hardly a reason for Sen. Durbin to criticize and threaten them. If he’s looking for someone to blame for the poor human rights record of some governments, perhaps he should look a little closer to home.