Regulation

Tech Companies Fail In Data Protection Rankings

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The likes of Google, Twitter and Vodafone don’t show enough commitment to users’ freedom of expression and privacy, according to Ranking Digital Rights

Major web and telecommunications companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, Vodafone and Orange, have scored poorly on a new index intended to track how companies protect users’ privacy and freedom of expression.

None of the companies evaluated by the Ranking Digital Rights project for its first annual Corporate Accountability Index fared well, with Google, the top scorer, reaching only 65 percent out of 100, and only six of those studied reaching 50 percent or higher.

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Nearly half of the companies included scored less than 25 percent, which the project said shows a “serious deficit of respect for users’ freedom of expression and privacy”.

Ranking Digital Rights, a project of Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America Foundation, derived the rankings from data collected over a period of more than two years, including user agreements, privacy policies, terms of service and corporate reports. The project disclosed its initial findings to the companies, giving them right of reply and making modifications if policies were updated.

The project drew on international human rights frameworks and used methodology co-developed with Amsterdam-based Sustainalytics, an independent corporate governance research, ratings, and analysis firm. The results were released on Tuesday.

“Even the companies that ranked highest are missing the mark in some ways,” Ranking Digital Rights said in a statement. “Improvements are needed across the board to demonstrate a greater commitment to users’ freedom of expression and privacy.”

‘No winners’

Google ranked highest overall amongst web companies, with 65 percent, and Vodafone amongst telecommunications firms, with 54 percent, while Mail.ru scored lowest amongst the web companies at 13 percent and United Arab Emirates-based Etisalat lowest amongst telecommunications firms at 14 percent.

The project emphasised that even the highest scores were unacceptable.

“When we put the rankings in perspective, it’s clear there are no winners,” statedRanking Digital Rights director Rebecca MacKinnon. She said, however, that the index is aimed at helping organisations improve their policies and practices over time, as well as helping users make more informed decisions.

The project said that overall, the companies studied failed to communicate clearly to users what information is collected about them, with whom it is shared, under what circumstances and how long the information is kept.

Companies didn’t publish much information about private and self-regulatory processes, with few companies disclosing data about private third-party requests to remove or restrict content or to share user information.

The project acknowledged that companies’ behaviour in these areas is influenced by current laws and regulations. “All of the ranked companies face some legal or regulatory requirements that hinder their performance on certain indicators,” the project said.

Transparency reporting

On the other hand, the project applauded the trend toward transparency reporting, with companies increasingly reporting government requests to share user information, remove or block content or take other action involving user accounts, and noted that the companies all were taking some action in the areas of privacy and freedom of expression.

The European Union recently annulled a data-sharing treaty known as “Safe Harbour”, which had facilitated user data transfers to the US, in part over concerns that the data was being collected under mass surveillance programmes by the NSA.

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