by Madi Ro
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress on the issue of privacy back in April 2018, it was made clear that there was a large gap between the advancements of the tech world and the ability of policy to keep up with such advancements. People made fun of the senators for not understanding the model of social media platforms. Throughout Facebook’s Menlo Park campus, one can see random stickers declaring “Senator, We Run Ads”.
Governments have always tried to keep up with private entities, and tech companies are just the newest phase for government regulation. On October 16, 2019, the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy held an event to talk about corporate accountability and facilitating relations between corporations and the government. The guests, married couple Rebecca MacKinnon and Bennett Freeman, made it clear that their goals were not necessarily to police corporations, but to encourage and regulate them so that they operate in line with human rights and democratic values and practices.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a former CNN journalist who worked in Beijing from 1992-2001, eventually becoming the Beijing Bureau Chief in 1998 and the Tokyo Bureau Chief in 2001. Her work and research mostly revolves around internet freedom and protecting journalists.
Bennett Freeman is a former campaign advisor and served under multiple administrations for the State Department. He was notably the chief speech writer for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. His work and research now primarily focuses on the relationships between corporations and the government.
MacKinnon has an impressive resume in journalism and academia, but her most recent advocacy work relates to protecting people’s digital rights in a time of rapid internet and social media expansion. She is the head of the Ranking Digital Rights’s Corporate Accountability Index, and its work focuses on helping companies identify their shortcomings to protect digital rights such as data privacy and corporate transparency. Not only does the index evaluate companies to shed light on ways in which they can improve, but also acts as a means to drive productivity by looking through hard data to promote digital rights.
Most of the companies included in the index have changed policies relating to their disclosure, including Chinese companies who have historically not been transparent. For example, some Chinese corporations have shown improvements in disclosures on how they handle and secure their consumer data. Foreign companies are not subject to make these changes, and do not face the same public pressure to do so domestically, but the fact that they are still paying attention to the issues raised by the index demonstrates progress in protecting people’s data, which is an essential digital right. This is a testament to the effectiveness of MacKinnon’s work, and how being clear and constructive goes beyond merely policing private entities.
As for the second speaker, Bennett Freeman’s work relates to the overlap between civil society and corporations. He worked on the Shared Space Under Pressure initiative, which provided a framework to inform companies how to act in accordance with human rights norms. Similar to how MacKinnon’s index tries to help companies tackle specifically digital rights, this project focuses on providing concrete tools and suggestions for companies in order to promote democracy and human rights.
For example, the initiative encourages the companies to speak out against civil injustices, and gives guidelines on how they can engage with the public and a foreign host government if necessary. Freeman sees corporations in a unique position to stand up against injustice, and asserts that the “Lifeblood of civil society is also the lifeblood of sustainable businesses.” He advocated for the relationship between governments, corporations, and civil society to not just merely coexist, but flourish together.
Perhaps the most personal part of the event happened towards the end, when the guests talked about their individual motivations for pursuing their work. MacKinnon spoke about her time growing up in New Delhi in the 70s, and her shock to see the level of poverty in the region. She also recalled on her time as a CNN reporter in China, and the impact of seeing her colleagues imprisoned for their criticism of the government. Freeman, on the other hand, reminisced growing up in the city of San Francisco, a beacon for progressive movements throughout American history. During which time, he witnessed the unfolding of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and early signs of the Climate Change movement.
With each speaker carrying different perspectives on how to tackle issues relating to corporate accountability and the preservation of democratic institutions, it was interesting to see how their distinct paths developed. The years of exposure to and interaction with different companies, countries, and cultures led them both to pursue solutions for corporate accountability through the promotion of human rights and democracy.
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