There are several initiatives out there that measure and rank companies. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are ranked according to how they ensure access to medicines and major foodstuffs producers are ranked according to their impact on communities. Now, we have the Corporate Accountability Index that measures how internet companies and telcos fare in their general commitment to digital rights and practices related to freedom of expression and privacy.
However, is this merely a game of name and shame?
Though it seems like one, the ultimate goal is to actually improve companies. Rebecca MacKinnon, the director of the Corporate Accountability Index, an initiative supported by a dozen of funders and several research centers, says that the main goal of this initiative and the kind of impact the index is craving is to force companies to improve their policies, because that will ultimately have positive repercussions on consumers.
“We’ve seen with other indexes that when you actually score companies and compare them against each other, that triggers their competitive instinct,” said Ms MacKinnon. “They want to do better.”
The Corporate Accountability Index compared and analyzed, according to a rigorous methodology, the policies and practices of companies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy, hoping that this would help internet companies and telcos better understand how they can improve.
At the same time, the index allows citizens to actually see how companies are different and what the possible best practices could be. In the end, such rankings will hopefully empower citizens to understand what demands they can make from telcos and internet providers, and what sort of service they should expect.
The index, launched on 3 November 2015, is not a finite story. Currently, it is only covering 16 of the mightiest internet and telecommunications companies in the world. It only maps the disclosed policies and practices. “There are all kind of things that we still don’t know about what is really happening on the ground, what is the user’s experience in different places […],” Ms MacKinnon said.
One of the striking findings of the research is that no company in the index provides users with “sufficient clear, comprehensive, and accessible information about the practices they have in place that affect freedom of expression and privacy.”
For example, how do these companies collect, use, share and retain user’s data? Not many people are aware that when they download their favorite series on their PS3 game console, somebody at the other end of the line collects information about them. Some of them sell it to advertisers, other sell the data to shops and game producers, and yet another group of companies share it with other departments in their company who might want to target these consumers with specific products. When it comes to consumption of political news and information, the whole collection of data process can become even trickier for citizens.
That is why it’s key for telcos and internet companies to tell people in plain language what happens with their data. “Even companies that make efforts to publish such information still fail to communicate clearly with users about what’s collected about them, with whom it is shared, under what circumstances, and how long the information is kept,” the Index’s findings revealed.
And if this is the case with companies such as Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft and Facebook, imagine what happens in countries where telcos and internet providers are under the thumbs of governments. If such ranking tools are developed in more places, consumers might have some interesting news about the way they’re treated by their local phone company.