29 Dec

Company Spotlight: Ranking Digital Rights at New America 

By Sooin Choi

The American Geographical Society met with Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Director, Jessica Dheere, and Research Manager, Zak Rogoff, to discuss the increasing presence of the online world. In the age of social media, privacy is being contested everyday. Does privacy still matter to us? Is privacy just an abstract concept? To these questions, Rogoff answered, “Privacy isn’t dead, it’s just under threat.” Addressing the complexities of privacy protection on digital devices and the internet is what Rogoff researches at RDR, an independent research program based within the think tank, New America.

RDR was founded in 2013 by Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the early prominent thinkers about human rights online. MacKinnon authored Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom in 2012, prompting new discussions about the increasing power of tech companies over our daily lives, and the resulting threats to human rights, particularly privacy and freedom of expression. At the time, MacKinnon inspired other academics, investors, tech and telecom companies, and civil societies to think about the standards companies should be adhering to. Now, about ten years since its founding, RDR has grown into a global team with researchers located across the world, evaluating leading tech and telecommunications companies globally. 

Since 2015, RDR has been publishing their Corporate Accountability Index, which comprises the Big Tech and Telco Giants scorecards and evaluates the disclosed policies and practices of leading tech and telecom companies. The evaluation is based on a rigorous set of about 300 standards and substandards labeled as indicators.The main categories of these indicators are in governance, privacy, and freedom of expression, and they show whether companies’ policies align with human rights principles. After assessing all indicators, RDR translates the data into corporate accountability scores for the 26 companies it ranks. 

By publishing the rankings online, RDR hopes to incentivize companies to amend their practices to best adhere to human rights principles. Dheere stated that RDR is “more of a carrot than a stick, where we’re trying to incentivize companies to respect human rights.” Dheere also added that indicators can be a helpful checklist for companies working on privacy and freedom of expression policies. In the last few years, RDR has been focusing more closely on tech companies’ use of algorithmic systems and targeted advertising. 

As for telecom companies, Rogoff discussed how they surprisingly perform poorer on protecting people’s location data. Whereas digital platforms may give you an option to turn off one’s GPS, telecom companies inevitably have your location data whenever your phone is connected to a cell tower. Even though telecom companies’ geographical data may not be as precise as GPS data, it is impossible to prevent them from accessing it. 

The vulnerability of geographical information is alarming, because location data is “one of the most powerful types of data,” according to Rogoff. He demonstrated how easily geographical information can be de-anonymized. For instance, “if a phone spends a lot of time in a home, it is probably one of the three people who live there.” Even without a precise location like a home address, companies can deduce a wealth of information just with a geographical context. Just by identifying a neighborhood a person lives in, one’s race, income level, and other socioeconomic characteristics can be more easily discovered. 

Moreover, telecom companies who perform worse on privacy protection often have cozier relationships with the government. Many telecom companies are government-owned and some sell data to law enforcement. Rogoff warned about the sensitivity of such data, discussing RDR’s support for strong federal legislation on privacy that includes location data. 

Evaluating the complex policies related to governance, privacy, and freedom of expression for 26 companies generates a large amount of data and information. To make the data both accessible and impactful, RDR has been collaborating with civil societies and investors. As an example, RDR worked with Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to organize a Social Media Safety Index for LGBTQ user safety on social media platforms. RDR advised GLAAD on their methodology and indicators to address LGBTQ protections online. In terms of investors, RDR’s recommendations translate into shareholder resolutions through which investors advocate for policy improvements. 

Since Ranking Digital Rights’ scores are based on companies’ disclosed policies, they may be considered proxies for the companies’ actual behavior. However, they help establish a baseline to evaluate the practices of companies who encroach on our day-to-day lives. Moving forward, RDR hopes to make legislative impacts on privacy and freedom of expression, with Dheere concluding, “The phone has become the locus of everything we do. It is a tracker in your pocket, and how companies take advantage of that in a capitalistic way is something we should think about.”