.The world’s biggest tech companies have some pretty poor digital rights grades, according to a new study.
A new report scoring tech companies’s support for digital rights comes to some surprising conclusions. It ranks Google (GOOG, GOOGL) above Apple (AAPL), puts AT&T (T) atop telecommunications firms & even says some modestly nice things approximately firms in China & Russia.
But before you rush to the comments to denounce the 2017 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, realize this report grades transparency, not just conduct — & that it’s not too complimentary approximately the effort any of the 22 firms surveyed put into defending your freedom of speech & privacy.
“We have two companies that received a D & everybody else received an F,” said Ranking Digital Rights director Rebecca MacKinnon at a Thursday-morning event in Washington introducing the Washington-based non-profit’s report.
Microsoft, Google & everybody else
Those two corporations are Google & Microsoft (MSFT), which earned passing averages — 65 & 62 out of 100, respectively — across the report’s three categories: governance, freedom of expression & privacy.
The first judges a company’s institutional commitment to protecting human rights, as seen in things like having senior-level oversight, assessing the risks to them posed by products & providing customers with responsive complaint mechanisms.
The second rates such free-speech defenses as clear terms of service, a documented process for dealing with requests to remove customers’ content, transparency approximately content removal & policies that don’t require you to use your real name.
The third covers customers’ control of their data, transparency approximately both corporate usage of that data & outside demands for it, responses to security vulnerabilities & data breaches & encryption of your data to protect it from snooping.
Both Google & Microsoft ingest massive amounts of customer information, yet both moreover document what they collect, how they use it, under what conditions a government can obtain it & how often that happens.
After those two, Yahoo (YHOO), Yahoo Finance’s parent company, & Facebook (FB) earned scores of 58 & 53, respectively. Everybody else fell below 50. AT&T & Twitter (TWTR) each received a 48, while Apple received a score of 35. Samsung earned a dismal 26.
Opacity will hold a company back
Apple, a company that takes tremendous pride in comparing its treatment of its customers’ data with Google’s, did badly because of one word: opacity.
Ranking Digital Rights (funded by the MacArthur, Ford, Open Society & Mozilla foundations, plus the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor) criticized Apple’s failure to document its policies approximately freedom of expression. When you look at the company’s often-inscrutable control of the iOS App Store & its history of rejecting apps because of their content, that’s a fair critique.
As MacKinnon observed Thursday, “There’s no transparency approximately how it polices its App Store.”
The report moreover found fault with the Cupertino, Calif.-based company’s lack of disclosure approximately its data-usage & security policies & procedures — even while noting the “consensus in the technical community that its products are among the most secure on the market.”
Added MacKinnon, “It’s not clear why they don’t disclose more.”
Samsung received punished for being even less open approximately its policies, including a failure to post a “transparency report,” which serves as a regular account of government demands for user data that has become usual at most large U.S. tech firms.
The most striking part of this report may be how badly tech & telecom companies outside of the U.S. performed.
The Korean mobile-internet firm Kakao earned a 50 for its clear data-use policies, the British telecom firm Vodafone received a 48 largely on the strength of its governance score—and nobody else did better than 33.
That includes such European firms as France’s Orange (32) & Spain’s Telefónica (33) that operate under much stricter privacy laws than their U.S. counterparts. Once again, a lack of transparency held them back.
“Even if they’re complying with European data protection regulations, they’re not telling their users very much,” MacKinnon said.
The report covers internet companies operating in China (Baidu & Tencent, 13 & 22) & Russia (Yandex & Mail.ru, 28 & 22), yet the worst scores fell to two state-owned telecom firms in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat, received an 8 & Qatar’s Ooredoo notched a 5 for disclosing next to nothing approximately their policies protecting customers’ rights.
Will this report obtain those laggards to do better? Maybe not. But there’s room to hope that non-cellar-dwelling companies will strive to do better.
“In response to our evaluation in 2015 several companies improved their transparency reporting,” MacKinnon wrote in an e-mail. She added that while no companies in 2015’s survey disclosed data approximately content removed on terms-of-service grounds, three now do.
“Based on conversations with companies we have reason to believe that our ranking was among several prompts for them to do this,” she said. And at Thursday’s event, she noted that Twitter’s latest transparency report now features information approximately “TOS” removals.
This kind of public shaming & scolding may not be much, yet given the Trump administration’s campaign to curb government regulations, it may moreover be all we have in the United States.
More from Rob:
You’re not as secure online as you might think Two fake news writers reveal how they ply their trade Google’s chief internet evangelist seems nervous approximately Trump’s tech policy Venture investor on Trump: ‘We are in an absolute unmitigated crisis’ The real lesson of Wikileaks’ massive document dump — encryption works
Email Rob at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.
Information TechnologyTechnology & ElectronicsAppleGoogledigital rightsRebecca MacKinnon