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(Washington, DC) – Facebook has taken a critical step toward increasing respect for human rights by joining the Global Network Initiative.

Facebook joined the Global Network Initiative after participating as an observer in the organization for the past year. By becoming a full member, Facebook has pledged to abide by a set of human rights principles for respecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. The company also agrees to independent, third-party monitoring to show that it is complying with the initiative’s standards.

“Facebook has an undeniable responsibility to safeguard human rights for the more than billion people who use it,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch and board member of the Global Network Initiative. “By joining the Global Network Initiative, Facebook is taking an important step to respect its users’ human rights and to be accountable to them. The real test is to see how it implements GNI’s principles.”

The Global Network Initiative was started in 2008 to establish a global standard for corporate responsibility in the technology sector for the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. By joining the Global Network Initiative, Facebook has made a commitment to carry out appropriate human rights policies. Unlike some voluntary industry standards, GNI requires members to accept independent monitoring of their progress and commitments. If a member company fails to comply with the requirements, it can be ejected from the initiative.

Human rights defenders and civil society groups increasingly use social media to organize and hold governments and other powerful actors accountable. In countries where traditional, offline media are heavily controlled, social media have also become an essential source for independent news and a platform for public debate. Services like Facebook can be crucial for the work of journalists and activists, who use the service as an alternative channel for distributing their work. In one recent example, independent radio stations and online newspapers in Malaysia began providing content through Facebook and other major social media platforms ahead of the May 2013 elections after multiple, distributed denial-of-service attacks brought down their primary websites. Facebook’s internal policies can have a considerable impact on people’s ability to use the firm’s service to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and information, and to safeguard their privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

At the same time, Facebook has faced widespread criticism over its apparently arbitrary approach to posts and sites that appear to endorse violence against women online and requests to censor other information. GNI is a forum in which those issues can be addressed and doing so is a responsibility Facebook has accepted in order to implement GNI’s principles.

On another worrying front, governments are discovering that the Internet is an effective tool for censorship and oppression. Authorities increasingly seek the aid of Internet firms to censor online content and monitor activists and human rights defenders. Social media companies collect and store sensitive personal data, including contact lists, group affiliations, and even emails or chat logs, and authorities are increasingly pressing companies for access to such data. In recent years, Human Rights Watch has witnessed an increase in the arrest and detention of bloggers, restrictions on websites and content, and online intimidation and surveillance of peaceful political activists.

Human Rights Watch believes that companies like Facebook should have effective policies and procedures in place to safeguard human rights online, and to guide company decisions in the face of government requests for censorship and user data because they often operate in environments hostile to human rights. Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative and serves on its board of directors. While voluntary efforts like the GNI are an important component for increasing corporate accountability, ultimately regulation is also needed to ensure that all Internet companies respect their users’ human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Five other companies have joined the initiative: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, the voice-recording service Evoca, and the software maker Websense. The initiative is governed by a multi-stakeholder board that includes human rights organizations, socially responsible investment groups, academic institutions, and independent experts.

“Facebook is part of a growing number of companies that recognize their human rights responsibilities on and off-line,” Ganesan said. “Without meaningful corporate accountability across the Internet sector, companies risk becoming tools for repression, rather than enablers of human rights.

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