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Digital rights report hits Apple for its secrecy

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
The world’s biggest tech companies have some pretty poor digital rights grades, according to a new study.

A new report scoring tech companies’s support for digital rights comes to some surprising conclusions. It ranks Google (GOOG, GOOGL) above Apple (AAPL), puts AT&T (T) atop telecommunications firms and even says some modestly nice things about firms in China and Russia.

But before you rush to the comments to denounce the 2017 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, realize this report grades transparency, not just conduct — and that it’s not too complimentary about the effort any of the 22 firms surveyed put into defending your freedom of speech and privacy.

“We have two companies that got a D and everybody else got an F,” said Ranking Digital Rights director Rebecca MacKinnon at a Thursday-morning event in Washington introducing the Washington-based non-profit’s report.

Microsoft, Google and everybody else

Those two corporations are Google and Microsoft (MSFT), which earned passing averages — 65 and 62 out of 100, respectively — across the report’s three categories: governance, freedom of expression and privacy.

The first judges a company’s institutional commitment to protecting human rights, as seen in things like having senior-level oversight, assessing the risks to them posed by products and providing customers with responsive complaint mechanisms.

The second rates such free-speech defenses as clear terms of service, a documented process for dealing with requests to remove customers’ content, transparency about content removal and policies that don’t require you to use your real name.

The third covers customers’ control of their data, transparency about both corporate usage of that data and outside demands for it, responses to security vulnerabilities and data breaches and encryption of your data to protect it from snooping.

Both Google and Microsoft ingest massive amounts of customer information, but both also document what they collect, how they use it, under what conditions a government can get it and how often that happens.

After those two, Yahoo (YHOO), Yahoo Finance’s parent company, and Facebook (FB) earned scores of 58 and 53, respectively. Everybody else fell below 50. AT&T and Twitter (TWTR) each got a 48, while Apple got a score of 35. Samsung earned a dismal 26.

Opacity will hold a company back

Apple, a company that takes great pride in comparing its treatment of its customers’ data with Google’s, did badly because of one word: opacity.

Ranking Digital Rights (funded by the MacArthur, Ford, Open Society and Mozilla foundations, plus the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) criticized Apple’s failure to document its policies about freedom of expression. When you look at the company’s often-inscrutable control of the iOS App Store and its history of rejecting apps because of their content, that’s a fair critique.

As MacKinnon observed Thursday, “There’s no transparency about how it polices its App Store.”

The report also found fault with the Cupertino, Calif.-based company’s lack of disclosure about its data-usage and security policies and procedures — even while noting the “consensus in the technical community that its products are among the most secure on the market.”

Added MacKinnon, “It’s not clear why they don’t disclose more.”

Samsung got punished for being even less open about its policies, including a failure to post a “transparency report,” which serves as a regular account of government demands for user data that has become common at most large U.S. tech firms.

USA! USA!

The most striking part of this report may be how badly tech and telecom companies outside of the U.S. performed.

The Korean mobile-internet firm Kakao earned a 50 for its clear data-use policies, the British telecom firm Vodafone got a 48 largely on the strength of its governance score—and nobody else did better than 33.

That includes such European firms as France’s Orange (32) and Spain’s Telefónica (33) that operate under much stricter privacy laws than their U.S. counterparts. Once again, a lack of transparency held them back.

“Even if they’re complying with European data protection regulations, they’re not telling their users very much,” MacKinnon said.

The report covers internet companies operating in China (Baidu and Tencent, 13 and 22) and Russia (Yandex and Mail.ru, 28 and 22), but the worst scores fell to two state-owned telecom firms in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat, got an 8 and Qatar’s Ooredoo notched a 5 for disclosing next to nothing about their policies protecting customers’ rights.

Now what?

Will this report get those laggards to do better? Maybe not. But there’s room to hope that non-cellar-dwelling companies will strive to do better.

“In response to our evaluation in 2015 several companies improved their transparency reporting,” MacKinnon wrote in an e-mail. She added that while no companies in 2015’s survey disclosed data about content removed on terms-of-service grounds, three now do.

“Based on conversations with companies we have reason to believe that our ranking was among several prompts for them to do this,” she said. And at Thursday’s event, she noted that Twitter’s latest transparency report now features information about “TOS” removals.

This kind of public shaming and scolding may not be much, but given the Trump administration’s campaign to curb government regulations, it may also be all we have in the United States.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.