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Penn Law seminar students take the measure of Internet companies on human rights

October 09, 2013

Students in a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School this fall are contributing to a University wide, cross-disciplinary project that seeks to rate how well the world’s leading Internet companies uphold free expression and privacy rights.

The seminar – Human Rights, Corporate Responsibility and Information Communications Technology – is being co-taught by Rebecca MacKinnon and Cynthia Wong, both Law School lecturers. MacKinnon, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and journalist, is a visiting affiliate at the Center for Global Communications Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication. Wong, an attorney, is Senior Internet Researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The seminar coincides with an initiative MacKinnon leads at Penn called New Technologies, Human Rights, and Transparency, which involves Penn Law, Wharton, Annenberg and Penn Engineering. The cross-disciplinary effort, supported by a grant from the Provost’s Global Engagement Fund, is part of a new international research project called Ranking Digital Rights. The project, which MacKinnon founded, is focused on developing a methodology for rating information communications technology (ICT) companies on free expression and privacy criteria. Students in the Law School seminar will have the option to work on case studies that will be considered for publication as part of that project.

“The first step in increasing corporate accountability in the tech sector is to document company abuses of human rights,” Wong said. “Rebecca and I bring our respective hands-on experiences from journalism and law to the course with the hope that students’ research can contribute to the field, beyond the four corners of the classroom. Given the revelations of mass surveillance this year, there is urgent need to increase scrutiny of company practices that impact user rights.”

“The class is meant to bring together several different issues shaping the digitally networked world that we now live in,” MacKinnon explained. “New information and communications technologies like the Internet and mobile devices can connect and empower people in unprecedented ways. Yet companies’ business practices, engineering and design decisions, and government relationships can also result in serious violations of citizens’ right to free expression, assembly, and privacy.”

The seminar has attracted students interested in engaging with public policy and human rights. “I’ve been driven in my academic and professional pursuits by the question of what a meaningful relationship between corporate governance and human rights might look like,” said Natalie Punchak, a second-year student. “Through this course, I look forward to gaining a practical understanding of how the Internet and ICTs can be game-changers in that relationship.”

The seminar is especially timely. With the global furor over the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, the involvement of major online companies has been much in the news.

Recently, Facebook reported it had received requests from 74 countries for data on more than 38,000 users.  Microsoft, Google, Twitter and other big technology companies have issued similar reports, which make clear that the surveillance issue involves governments around the globe.

MacKinnon’s Ranking Digital Rights project is aimed at expanding such corporate accountability to a larger group of companies – not just on privacy issues, but on company practices that affect free expression and human rights more broadly.

International human rights norms related to this problem are just emerging, MacKinnon points out. In 2011, for instance, the UN affirmed that while states have a duty to protect human rights, companies also have a responsibility to respect human rights. In 2012, it further affirmed that protection of human rights in the digital sphere is essential to the protection of human rights in the physical world.

Students in the Law School seminar will conduct in-depth research projects focused on the challenges faced by specific companies operating in specific markets. They will examine how these companies can uphold their human rights obligations in the face of commercial pressures and government demands that contradict international human rights law.

MacKinnon, who worked as a journalist for CNN in Beijing for nine years, is the author of the award-winning book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom (Basic Books, 2012) and is co-founder of Global Voices Online, an international citizen media network and digital rights advocacy organization.