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25 May 2021

Ellery Roberts Biddle, Ranking Digital Rights

Ranking Digital Rights pays tribute to departing founder Rebecca MacKinnon

"Farewell, Rebecca!" 25 May 2021

It is with heavy hearts that we bid farewell to our founder, Rebecca MacKinnon, who will conclude her work with RDR at the end of this month. Rebecca conceived and founded RDR in 2013 and ran it until she passed the baton to Jessica Dheere, who became RDR’s director in September 2020.

Rebecca has been a leading advocate for freedom of expression and privacy online since 2004... Rebecca’s 2012 book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, was described by writer and tech activist Cory Doctorow as “an absolutely indispensable account of the way that technology both serves freedom and removes it.” In a sharp departure from popular “liberation technology” narratives of the time, Rebecca delivered an early warning that unaccountable tech company practices posed a threat to the future of democracy and human rights...

But for some readers, Consent of the Networked also begged the question: “So you’ve written this book about the problem, now what are you going to do about it?”

Ranking Digital Rights was her answer. A handful of companies had voluntarily joined the Global Network Initiative (which she also helped launch in 2008) and committed to basic due diligence and transparency standards in response to government censorship and surveillance demands. But while the GNI has set standards for industry best practices in dealing with government demands, many of the world’s most powerful tech giants have yet to join. What’s more, the GNI does not address a wide range of human rights implications stemming from companies’ business models, design choices, and other commercial practices. She concluded that a systematic, global, regularly updated ranking was needed, modeled after emerging benchmarks of other companies and industries on environmental sustainability, labor practices, and political donations.

... By 2020 RDR’s staff had expanded to over a dozen people, thanks to the generous support of a growing group of funders and partners. Today, the RDR Index offers the only year-on-year ranking of the world’s most powerful digital platforms and telecommunications companies on policies and practices affecting users’ human rights. The RDR Index has become a widely recognized global standard for corporate accountability in the tech sector, and a key resource for policymakers, investors, and civil society organizations advocating in the field.

Among digital rights advocates, Rebecca needs no introduction. This is not only because of her intellectual leadership and tireless efforts to hold tech companies accountable to the public. It is also because of her strengths as a builder of networks and a mentor of new voices and advocates in our field...