Challenges of Telecoms Transparency

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In February 2016 the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue and the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative (GNI) announced that seven global telecommunication companies will join with GNI to promote and advance freedom of expression and privacy around the world. 

Long before the Edward Snowden revelations, a debate had already begun about privacy, freedom of expression and what governments do with the data they collect about their citizens. However, the allegations made by Snowden about the complicity between Western governments and ICT companies have damaged the sector’s reputation, even though in many countries companies are compelled by law to comply with government requests.

The likes of Vodafone, Orange, TeliaSonera, BT, Verizon and Telenor in the telecoms sector, as well as others such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are now publishing so called Transparency or Law Enforcement Reports. Here they outline how they evaluate and handle government requests that may have an impact on freedom of expression and privacy. 

Our analysis of these reports reveals a number of interesting trends: 
  • Some are very detailed, others provide nothing – Some of the transparency reporting pioneers are now providing a considerable amount of information covering corporate policies, relevant legislation and country by country breakdowns of government requests received. However a large number of companies still provide no information on the subject at all. 

  • Data, data, data – Some companies are now reporting twice a year. Many of these frequent disclosures focus on providing stakeholders with extensive data sets relating to government requests. 

  • Scope increases but comparison remains difficult– reporters have added more and more countries to their reporting, disclosing relevant laws and government request data. But in some cases companies are prevented from disclosing information about government requests making comparisons between different countries or company reports very difficult. 

  • Freedom of expression is not covered in detail – Some reports cover information on network censorship, content blocking, the restriction of services and other areas that might affect freedom of expression. However, compared to other areas of reporting freedom of expression still has some way to go. 
So what is next for these disclosures? We believe companies need to answer the following questions in order to improve their current reporting: 

  • Why? Reporting is generally ‘a good thing’, as stakeholders will only be able to effectively hold companies and governments to account if they have access to relevant information.  But companies need to be clear on their objectives.  Are you seeking to simply inform, outline the boundaries of your company’s responsibility, lobby for change or something else? 

  • When? Even limited disclosures are useful, but there should be a clear plan for how the information made available will increase over time. Providing stakeholders with an overview of the policies you have in place and outlining your plans for the future is a valid starting point.  

  • Who and how? A large number of different stakeholders are now interested in these topics as they have entered mainstream debate. When it comes to reporting, one size will not fit all and ultimately you might want to consider different communication channels and levels of detail for different audiences. 

  • What? Data is meaningless if the context is not clear.  Stakeholders can be left scratching their heads as to what any of it really means. The context is often complex, so data has to be accompanied with relevant narrative. And often providing context around what cannot be published due to certain restrictions can be even more useful than a large amount of data put in the public domain. 

Companies are now actively engaging with their stakeholders on their reporting and some are starting to obtain independent assessments of their arrangements for transparency on these issues. Over time, this should promote and stimulate a more consistent and complete approach to disclosure.  In the meantime, interest and expectations amongst stakeholders will continue to increase, creating a tricky communications challenge for the telecommunications sector.

DNV GL is now an accredited assessor of the Global Network Initiative (GNI).

Telecoms transparency article