Ranking Digital Rights: “Machines betray us again and again”

Anna Triponel

February 22, 2021

2020 was something of a landmark year for the digital economy, driven in large part by the COVID-19 context where so many of our global interactions have moved online (even world leaders are relying on video-chatting these days for official state visits with their counterparts!). As the sector continues to grow and Big Tech becomes more influential than ever in many aspects of the economy and individual and community life, the 2020 Corporate Accountability Index reveals that tech companies are still not fully meeting their human rights responsibilities to respect digital rights, to increase transparency and disclosure, to avoid complicity in government abuses, to mitigate the impacts of algorithms that entrench bias and disinformation, and to ensure access to remedy.

Human rights and technology advocacy group Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) has released the second iteration of its annual Corporate Accountability Index, which benchmarks “26 of the world’s most powerful digital platforms and telecommunications companies on their disclosed policies and practices affecting people’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy.” Scores are calculated based on 58 indicators across three categoriesgovernance, freedom of expression and information, and privacyto evaluate company commitments, policies, and practices affecting digital rights. In 2020, the methodology was expanded to assess what companies should disclose about their use of algorithms and targeted advertising practices, which “so often drive the spread of disinformation and harmful speech online.”

There is a wealth of information and analysis available on the index online hub, including individual analyses and scoring of each ranked company. We’ve summarised some of the most interesting and relevant findings from this year’s index below.

Key findings and benchmark results

Source: Ranking Digital Rights, 2020 Corporate Accountability Index (February 2021)

  • The headline finding of this year’s index is that “companies are improving in principle, but failing in practice”: “From the rampant spread of disinformation about COVID-19, to viral hateful speech amid a global movement against systemic racism, to the “de-platforming” of Donald Trump, 2020 felt like a crash course in the consequences of endowing tech companies with unchecked power. … In our research for the 2020 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, none of the 26 companies we rank—which collectively provide information and communications services to billions of people around the world—came even close to earning a passing grade on our international human rights-based standards of transparency and accountability.”
  • Progress on committing to respect fundamental digital rights: More and more companies are making explicit commitments to respecting human rights to freedom of expression and privacy: Apple, Facebook, Google, Mail.Ru, Microsoft, Samsung, Twitter, Verizon Media, Yandex and Kakao have all made commitments to respect both of these fundamental rights. Meanwhile, Amazon, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba have either made partial or no commitments to these rights.
  • Algorithms are deepening existing racial and ethnic biases and sometimes translating into real violence on the ground: “Results from the 2020 RDR Index demonstrate just how unaccountable tech companies are when it comes to their data-driven business models. None of the social media services we evaluated offered adequate information about how they actually shape, recommend, and amplify both user-generated and advertising content. Digital platforms appear to exercise little control over the technologies and systems that are driving the flood of problematic content online, with no clear accountability mechanisms in place to prevent the cascade of harms to democracy and human rights that are occurring as a result.”
  • Companies continue to collect users’ data without full transparency, but many are working to improve disclosure: “Our research showed that most companies ranked in 2020 improved their explanations of how they handle information they collect directly from users … Steady improvements in this area have been driven by a wave of stronger data protection regulations that have come into force in numerous countries across the world [like the EU’s General Data Protection Directive].”
  • Companies are struggling to implement standard approaches to moderating online content with respect for human rights: “When tech companies step into the role of censor—and particularly when decisions about content can have a dramatic influence on political and public affairs—it is vital that platform rules are enforced transparently and consistently and in accordance with international human rights standards. … Our research has consistently pointed to a major gap between companies’ policies and the actual enforcement of these rules—which has left the door wide open to unaccountable and arbitrary enforcement.”
  • “Network shutdowns continue, but some telcos are pushing back”: For example, “South African telco “MTN carried out network shutdownsat the behest of government authorities in Benin, Guinea, Liberia, and in Sudan, where shutdowns were used in an effort to quell pro-democracy protests. Nevertheless, in contrast to previous years, MTN joined a handful of other telcos that commit to push back against such orders. MTN also showed evidence of notifying users when carrying out shutdowns in some cases, which was another positive sign.”

Source: Amy Brouillette, Research Director, Ranking Digital Rights, 2020 Key Findings Report (February 2021)

  • Human rights governance and access to remedy remain relatively weak: “Companies across the board were weakest on human rights due diligence, with most failing to demonstrate that they conduct robust, systematic assessments to identify and mitigate the human rights risks of their policies and practices across their global operations.” What’s more, “[w]hen it came to remedy, we saw little change in 2020. Once again—with the exception of Telefónica—most companies failed to offer clear, predictable remedy to users who feel their freedom of expression and privacy rights have been violated.”

Source: Amy Brouillette, Research Director, Ranking Digital Rights, 2020 Key Findings Report (February 2021)

Source: Amy Brouillette, Research Director, Ranking Digital Rights, 2020 Key Findings Report (February 2021)

Recommendations for companies

  • Commit to and implement robust human rights governance”
  • “Conduct human rights due diligence”
  • “Strengthen human rights oversight”
  • “Strengthen commitments to the governance of privacy”
  • “Engage with affected stakeholders”
  • “Offer effective grievance and remedy mechanisms”
  • Maximize transparency”
  • “Publish transparency reports on the enforcement of their rules”
  • “Regularly report on demands from governments and other third parties”
  • “Demonstrate a credible commitment to security”
  • “Commit to resisting shutdowns and preserving network neutrality”
  • Give users meaningful control over their data and data inferred about them”
  • “Commit to data minimization and clearly disclose what data is collected”
  • “Be fully transparent about third-party data collection”
  • “Let users opt in; do not force them to opt out”
  • Account for harms that stem from algorithms and targeted advertising”
  • “Demonstrate algorithmic accountability”
  • “Come clean about targeted advertising”

“The past year has been defined by not one, but two plagues. The COVID-19 virus attacked our bodies, our livelihoods, and our ways of life. Meanwhile, an all but invisible corporate infrastructure of servers, databases, and algorithmic systems that commodify not just our social interactions but our very existence atomized our most intimate thoughts and actions as we all migrated our work, school, and social lives online. The toll of the first plague, now in the initial stages of containment thanks to the rapid development of vaccines, will be counted in the loss of our loved ones, our diminished economic security, and our nostalgia for how life used to be. The toll of the second, which aided in distancing us from scientific facts and fragmenting our sense of common cause, will be the loss of our agency and our ability to co-exist—if it is allowed to go on unchecked. Machines betray us again and again, yet we are more dependent on them now than ever before. And as data subjects, we have become an integral part of how they function.”                        

        Jessica Dheere, Director, Ranking Digital Rights, Introductory essay: The decision only we can make (February 2021)

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