New Technologies, Human Rights and Transparency: A Cross Disciplinary and Public Interest Approach

//Rebecca MacKinnon is launching new research examining transparency and privacy with ICTs and partnering with CGCS and a number of Penn institutions to address these issues across international and interdisciplinary lines.

Recently, the Center for Global Communication Studies sat down with Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online to discuss how transnational information communication technology (ICTs) companies are addressing human rights issues. During her talk with CGCS, MacKinnon expressed a need to hold transnational ICTs responsible for their policies and actions with regard to freedom of information, privacy and censorship.

From service providers like Verizon to device-makers like Apple and Samsung, to the popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, citizens all over the world are increasingly dependent on digital products and services owned and operated by private corporations. While these products and services are able to connect and empower people across the globe, their use of personal data and information raises questions about how these new technologies can affect the privacy and human rights of all netizens.

MacKinnon explained how companies worldwide, with the help of international audits, are making great progress in recognizing and addressing certain public interest issues (such as environmental initiatives and fair child labor policies). These companies are also taking steps to increase the transparency of these policies by informing their customers, end-users, and socially responsible investors of these practices. However, privacy and information management are often left out of these discussions, and corporations’ privacy policies are often deliberately vague and hard to understand.

Bringing the Debate to the University of Pennsylvania

To address these issues across international and interdisciplinary lines, MacKinnon, Professor Monroe Price, and CGCS are partnering with a number of Penn institutions, including the Wharton school of business, Penn Law, and the School of Engineering. This flagship project is being organized to provide opportunities for students to interact with globally influential ICT companies and to learn about how these influential organizations make the technological, business, and design choices that ultimately affect a citizen’s right to privacy and free expression online.

“We really hope that this project can be useful to the entire Penn community, and that it can provide opportunities for students at different levels. Ideally, these students can get involved in research they can go on to publish. Maybe the program will help students figure out their thesis, gain research experience, and offer a chance to be involved in something they care about”, explained MacKinnon, “we want to provide a service to the broader Penn community, provide the opportunity to learn new things, and interact with people in different disciplines.”

Rebecca’s hope is that the interdisciplinary nature of the project will allow a computer science major who is examining the code behind an ICT’s policy to collaborate with a political science researcher analyzing the socio-political impact of ICT company policies, a Zicklin Center for Business Ethics student focusing on social responsibility, and a law student studying legal constraints to ICT companies. These inter-disciplinary dialogues will serve as a way to encourage future participation and dedication to these issues.

For more information on the program, please visit the official project website or email

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