Just fancy that! A Washington think tank chaired by Eric Schmidt, Alphabet Inc’s executive chairman, has given Alphabet Inc. an award for "protecting your digital rights”.
Schmidt became executive chairman of the New America Foundation, which had built a strong reputation as a non-partisan and imaginative policy think tank, in 2008.
The following year, the foundation created an “Open Technology Initiative” and the think tank began to march in lockstep with Google’s own policy agenda.
This is called “policy laundering” – the act of legitimising a policy, or attempting to seize control of a debate, via third parties. Another useful description is “carousel propaganda”, coined by blogger Frank Fisher, an analogue of “carousel fraud”.
This week the foundation trumpeted the first results of its “Ranking Digital Rights” project. Coming up smelling of roses were Google, “the highest ranking internet company”, and Vodafone. The team made a gloomy conclusion:
"Nearly half the companies in the Index scored less than 25 per cent, showing a serious deficit of respect for users’ freedom of expression and privacy."
But the shortcomings of the research project are quickly apparent on closer examination.
The RDR project did not empirically measure the behaviour of the companies. It merely performed a textual analysis of their mission statements, click-through policies, and public utterances. It examined what they say they do, not what they actually do. But then it didn’t measure it against reality.
“We did not fact check their statements,” project head Rebecca McKinnon admitted this week in a video webcast. "What we're hoping is this create a set of data based on what companies claim they're doing."
"This is a conversation starter,” she added.
The RDR’s narrow definition of “digital rights” is also problematic. For example, being able to own and control your own stuff is a human right, one that requires no corporate entity, no registration process (in most of the world) and no expensive guru to interpret. That’s a right recognised in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and many other declarations. Similarly, the right to protect your reputation is widely recognised, and highly valued in Europe.
Google, and other large Silicon Valley consumer data processing giants, don’t like these. So these rights are excluded from the Project’s remit. If either right is mentioned, it’s only in the context of a “threat” to the “open internet”. Indeed, companies that respected ownership and followed the law in respecting it, were downgraded by the Project. Much of civil society marches to Google’s drum beat: the Washington Post documented Google’s cash flowing to 140 think tanks, civil society groups, and academics. In recent years civil society groups have pocketed millions in cash directly from the corporations they’re supposed to scrutinise.
After congratulating herself and her team, McKinnon boldly proposed a solution: creating huge amounts of more work for her and her team. The next steps, she said, would involve creating "a framework for conversations with a lot more companies, a framework for a lot more research [and] a framework for a lot more advocacy.”
Concluding the launch discussion, chair Micah Sifry noted that Yahoo! had already put out a corporate PR statement vowing to examine (but not necessarily take heed of) the project.
"You've already had an impact with one of the biggest internet companies,” he congratulated her.
So that’s all right then. ®