Tech Companies Increase Transparency to Protect Free Expression

January 8 (NEW YORK)–Today the Global Network Initiative (GNI), of which PEN American Center is a member, released a public report of the first ever Independent Assessment Process for Internet and Communications Technology Companies reviewing Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Based on information made available to independent assessors, the review determined that all three companies are in compliance with the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy in responding to government requests to obtain or control access to user information.

“Tech companies have as much if not more power than many governments in determining whether international free speech norms are protected online.  It is critical to monitor the steps they have taken to comply with their international human rights obligations and to ensure that users of their services do not unwittingly forfeit rights to privacy and freedom of expression,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center. “This review is an important preliminary step forward to ensure transparency and accountability as corporations shape the landscape for free expression in the digital age.”

The report acknowledges significant limitations in the assessment process as a result of legal constraints on disclosing requests from many national governments, as well as the assessed company’s claims to legal privilege and trade secrets. Conducted by independent auditors in early 2013, before Edward Snowden ‘s disclosures about the scope of U.S. government surveillance, the assessment report noticeably excludes review of the impact of National Security Letters, which companies are prohibited from disclosing.

“The future of free expression cannot be left up to closed discussions in Silicon Valley conference rooms and Washington DC,” Nossel continued. “This report underscores the importance of steps by the Obama administration to increase transparency of national security requests so that digital consumers can be adequately informed about the implications of the online choices they make. Only in this way can consumers and citizens make informed decisions in order to protect their own privacy and freedoms. Companies should continue—as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have done—to increase their transparency and accountability in upholding their obligations toward the rights of their users and customers.”


PEN American Center is a community of 3,800 American writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide.

Contact: Suzanne Nossel, snossel[at], 212.334.1660 x103