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Do Tech Companies Respect Digital Rights? Study Ranks Biggest Players

by Devin Coldewey /
An illustration picture shows a woman holding her Apple Ipad tablet which displays a tactile keyboard under the Google home page in Bordeaux, Southwestern France, in this February 4, 2013, file photo. The personal data gathering abilities of Google GOOG.O, Facebook FB.O and other tech companies has sparked growing unease among Americans, with a majority worried that Internet companies are encroaching too much upon their lives, a new poll showed, April 4, 2014. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Files (FRANCE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)REGIS DUVIGNAU / Reuters

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How well are the biggest tech companies upholding your rights and privacy? A long-term study published Tuesday ranks the likes of Google and Facebook based on dozens of criteria, from what data they collect and sell to how they handle government requests.

The Ranking Digital Rights organization, funded by several foundations that support public media and research, spent much of 2015 assessing 16 major Internet and telecommunications companies, following more than a year of researching how best to do so — what questions to ask, how to weight various factors, and so on.

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  Ranking Digital Rights

The resulting Corporate Accountability Index can be boiled down to the overall ranking you see above, but each rating is divided into many smaller ones. Each company has a more detailed write-up and ranking within each category.

Facebook, for example, scored fairly well itself on numerous measures, but couldn't or wouldn't provide enough data regarding the operations of Instagram and WhatsApp, two services it acquired in the last few years.

Related: Facebook Cries Foul Over Nearly 400 Government Requests for Data

Google sits at the top, but the study warns that this only means it generally did better than its peers — peers "whose performance nonetheless remains unsatisfactory." In other words, it's a good start but far from a knockout.

  Ranking Digital Rights

Companies also received partial credit for being honest about a controversial policy, even if that policy is potentially harmful to users. AT&T, for example, got points for admitting it prioritizes or degrades certain data streams for various reasons — not a good thing to do, but at least the company doesn't hide it.

Related: Can the 'Internet of Things' Preserve Privacy?: Lawmakers

Overall, nearly every company was a mixed bag of pluses and minuses — but China's Tencent and Russia's Mail.ru, with few policies or stances supporting free expression and privacy, ended up at the bottom of the heap.

This "phase 1" study covered tech and telecoms, but RDR is working on a sequel that examines "software, device, and networking equipment companies." It should be completed in 2016.

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