Do you worry about the data your internet service provider or cell phone company collects? Do you wonder why your social network censors a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph or breast feeding pictures, but not graphic rape jokes? Today, the research group Ranking Digital Rights released its second Corporate Accountability Index to help users better understand what companies are doing with your digital life.

The Index ranks 22 of the world’s largest telecom, internet, and mobile phone companies on their publicly disclosed commitments to freedom of expression and privacy. The report examines a range of corporate policies that describe such commitments, including terms of service, community guidelines on acceptable speech, privacy, and data collection policies. It also looks at how the firm responds to government requests for censorship and surveillance. Taken together, these policies affect at least half of the world’s 3.7 billion internet users.

 

The 2017 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index evaluates 22 of the world’s most powerful telecommunications, internet, and mobile companies on their public commitments and disclosed policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.

© 2017 Ranking Digital Rights

 
 
Overall, the Index shows that the companies don’t tell us enough about how and why our information is collected and used – but some are doing much better than others. Internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook outperformed telecom operators as a whole on many of the categories of policy disclosures. Firms that have committed to human rights principles like the Global Network Initiative also generally disclose more information on how they safeguard freedom of expression and privacy than those that haven’t. Surprisingly, the report found that Russian and Chinese firms could do more to reveal how they handle and secure user data for commercial purposes, despite otherwise difficult regulatory environments.

An important caveat to the Index is that it is an assessment of the policies companies disclose, not how these policies are actually put into practice. AT&T is a stark illustration of this limitation. The company ranked first among telecom companies because it publishes detailed information on security practices and government requests for data. Yet numerous reports going back a decade suggest that AT&T has facilitated mass violations of privacy by the US National Security Agency, and may in fact be profiting from such relationships.

Despite these limitations, the Index provides users with a crucial assessment about company policies, and a roadmap for the basic standards firms must meet if they hope to earn our trust by respecting our privacy and freedom of expression.