This Scorecard is due to be updated in 2018
A great many businesses use the internet, to at least some extent, whether for online banking, basic emailing or maintaining a company website. Increasingly, the goods and services businesses offer can be purchased over the internet and social media are used to market them. As a result, businesses have become custodians of people’s digital information. This may include personal information such as age, sex and other demographic details; financial information such as bank account and credit card details, ‘data’ (i.e. the comments, ‘likes’, email content, shared photos and videos) and ‘metadata’ (i.e. details of other people in their internet networks and how and when they link).
The impact of the internet on business has been and continues to be immense. And, given the pace of change inherent in the technology and its applications, opportunities and problems evolve rapidly. Theft of digital information has become one of the most commonly reported frauds. Other major concerns for business include misuse of company technology, information security, protection of business reputation and resulting corporate legal liability.
All companies can create cultures of internet use that will support business, allow innovation, improve employee productivity, deliver effective service to clients and customers, within a framework of practices that boost user confidence and provide a secure environment for business activities. There are several organisations, such as the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the Global Network Initiative, which provide a business-focused approach to good practice guidance. Actions might include:
- Communicating policies on internet freedom, freedom of expression and protection of privacy to employees, customers, down supply chains and to other stakeholders
- Ensuring policies on data collection by the business protects the privacy of customers, clients and staff and is compliant with the law
- Informing internet users of policies on data ownership, storage, retention and subsequent use
- Ensuring data is fairly and lawfully processed and used only for limited purposes
- Training employees in company internet policies
- Ensuring data is securely protected for the sake of internet users as well as the security of the IT infrastructure
- Ensuring data is retained only in compliance with the law and not transferred without adequate protection.
However, in addition to these various practical considerations actions, businesses are under increasing pressure to think more broadly about the internet and its impacts. The internet is more than a tool: it is a breakthrough technology affecting all of humanity. It is “an aggregate of a vast range of ideas, technologies, resources and policies developed on the assertion of freedom and through collective endeavours in the common interest. States, the private sector, civil society and individuals have all contributed to build the dynamic, inclusive and successful internet that we know today. The internet provides a space of freedom, facilitating the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights, participatory and democratic processes, and social and commercial activities.” Yet, according to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “the internet is simultaneously the most liberating tool for humanity ever invented, and also the best for surveillance. It is not one or the other. It is both.”
The use and development of the internet throws up many ethical questions and human rights concerns. For example, how should individual freedom of expression, on one hand, be balanced with the prevention of social disharmony and discord on the other? Equally, how should the right to privacy be balanced with the prevention of threats to national security? When does protection of vulnerable users become repressive? Who owns data collected via the internet? At what point does market intelligence or research on competitors translate into corporate espionage? What level of responsibility should be placed upon governments and corporations to make their data publicly accessible?
The internet has not simply changed business, it has transformed power structures and the ways in which we all live. A ONE campaign highlights the potential of the internet to allow citizens of developing countries to hold business and government to account, if relevant data is made accessible. A lack of public access, it suggests, means that “at least $1trillion is being taken out of developing countries each year through a web of corrupt activity that involves shady deals for natural resources, the use of anonymous shell companies, money laundering and the use of illegal tax evasion”, money which governments should be using to enhance the lives of their citizens.
In countries where government censorship of national media is rife, the internet may be a vital alternative source of information and communication. Arguably, social media were fundamental to the spread of the ‘Arab Spring’. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and social media platforms reportedly resisted government censorship in order to help citizens publicise the many uprisings, share images and coordinate demonstrations. At the same time, governments used surveillance and spy software to identify and harass key political opponents, such as bloggers and prominent social media users. Commercial operations underpinned all this activity. They continue to do so now in areas of conflict the world over.
The growth of the internet has also revolutionised foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities for governments. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency, the government body in which he worked as a contractor. According to leaked documents, the NSA intercepts the communications of over a billion people worldwide and tracks the movement of hundreds of millions of people using mobile phones. The NSA has also created, or maintains, security vulnerabilities in most software and encryption, leaving the majority of the internet susceptible to cyber attacks from itself and its collaborators.
One leading internet security expert, Bruce Schneier, argues that the NSA’s behaviour was simply pragmatic. That is, it did not suddenly decide to spy on the world but instead realised how useful the internet data, already collected by businesses, had become and it wanted access. He suggests consumers are willing to hand over their information to companies in exchange for ‘free’ services, such as email, games and networking, and that the data they generate becomes a valued commodity. Companies are constantly looking to obtain more data to better understand consumer behaviour and to better target individual users and so ‘to sell more stuff’. People are complicit in this and, indeed, are largely comfortable with such arrangements with commercial organisations. However, consider the business that requires customers install a new messaging app (i.e. the Facebook app which allows access to users’ phone cameras; records calls; sends messages without permission; identifies details about users and all their contacts and sends that information on to third parties). Is it improving its services to users or is it “invading people's privacy to a breath-taking extent”? If and when a government then piggyback on what business is already doing, reaction is adverse. People are quick to voice concern over the encroachment of ‘Big Brother’ and the breadth and depth of government powers of surveillance.
The roles of the corporate internet giants (e.g. Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn) are obviously of great significance. But so too are the actions of the telephony companies whose infrastructure is critical to carrying internet traffic. Campaigners argue that one of the most critical issues for the future of the internet is in the maintenance of ‘net neutrality’. While other national jurisdictions have already passed legislation to protect net neutrality, in the USA, the FCC has recently “proposed rules that would allow rampant discrimination online. Rules that would allow telecom giants like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to create a two-tiered Internet, with fast lanes for those who can afford it and dirt roads for the rest of us” according to the Save the Internet Campaign. The campaign also suggests that such companies would have the power to pick winners and losers online and discriminate against online content and applications, that no one would be able to do anything about it, and that this constitutes a grave threat to our rights to connect and communicate. Alternatively, the problem today isn't the ‘fast lanes’. The problem is whether a declining number of ISPs will grow so large that they have undue control over the market for fast speeds - whether they can independently decide who gets access to what connection at what price.
When great profits are at stake, organising the internet in a “sustainable and people-centered fashion, in harmony with human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law” becomes ever more challenging. This question attempts to raise some of the key issues and provide businesses an opportunity to explain and justify their practices and decisions in respect of use of the internet.