Internet and Telecom Companies Get Failing Grade on Privacy and Freedom of Expression Disclosure

For immediate release
March 23, 2017

2017 Corporate Accountability Index finds ‘most of the world’s internet users lack the information they need to make informed choices.’

A new evaluation of 22 of the world’s most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies on disclosed commitments and policies affecting freedom of expression and privacy finds that company disclosure is “inadequate across the board” – with an average score for all companies of just 33 percent out of a potential 100 percent.

The new report comes from Ranking Digital Rights (RDR), a non-profit research initiative which works “to set global standards for how companies in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector should respect freedom of expression and privacy.”

RDR’s 2017 Corporate Accountability Index examined products and services that are used by at least half of the world’s 3.7 billion internet users. “We regret to report that companies do not disclose enough information to their users about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy,” the report said. “As a result, most of the world’s internet users lack the information they need to make informed choices.”

This is the second Corporate Accountability Index; the first was published in 2015. “Similar to the 2015 Index results, the average score for all 22 companies evaluated was just 33 percent—and no company in the 2017 Index scored more than 65 percent overall,” the report said. “Even the best performing companies had significant gaps in their disclosure. Despite some improvements, collectively these companies failed to meet the benchmarks of transparency.”

Other highlights of the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index:

  • Google and Microsoft were the only companies in the entire Index to score more than 60 percent overall. However, Google’s lead over the other companies ranked near the top of the Index narrowed since 2015, while Microsoft moved from third to second place, primarily due to improved disclosures about policies affecting freedom of expression.
     
  • AT&T and Vodafone tied for the highest score among the 10 telecommunications companies evaluated. Vodafone scored better on disclosures related to its governance mechanisms as well as policies affecting freedom of expression. AT&T offered more detailed disclosure on policies and practices affecting users’ privacy.
     
  • Apple ranked seventh among the 12 internet and mobile ecosystem companies evaluated. A major reason for this relatively low score was poor disclosure about the company’s commitments and policies affecting users’ freedom of expression. Next to its peers, Apple also offered little disclosure about how it has institutionalized commitments to users’ rights through corporate governance, oversight, and accountability mechanisms.

Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC, said:

"The 2017 Corporate Accountability Index is an extremely valuable examination of what internet and communications technologies companies are disclosing about how they handle critical matters related to privacy and freedom of expression. Unfortunately – for billions of internet users around the globe – the findings are disappointing. 

We have to ask: Why aren’t companies more forthright about these issues? Why do some companies hesitate to explain their commitment to freedom of expression?  And why do some companies make it difficult to understand how they protect – or fail to protect – customer data?  

Open MIC works with investors to understand the business risks presented by these issues. Sadly, as the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index makes clear, the risks continue. The boards of directors and senior management of the leading internet and telecommunications companies should take note and take action."

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