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Transparency & Tech: Ten years in, where are we headed with transparency reporting?

This event took place on Dec. 11, 2020 and is part of our RightsCon 10th Anniversary Series. If you missed it live, you can watch the full session recording below. You can also watch Telia Company and Kakao present on their approach to transparency reporting, and hear from SASB on the new reporting metrics they are incorporating into their standards.

Ten years ago, Google released the first transparency report in the tech sector. Since then, over 70 companies have released similar reports, from telcos and social media platforms, to IoT companies. These reports have given us a picture of the scope of government surveillance and helped us understand how some companies enforce their own Terms of Service.

The growing prevalence of transparency reporting has also been evident in our RightsCon summit series; since 2014, the RightsCon program has featured at least one session on transparency reporting each year. With the upcoming 10th edition of RightsCon launching online from June 7-11, 2021, Access Now and our Transparency & Tech co-sponsor, BSR, took a moment to reflect on the past decade of transparency reporting, examine the gaps that need to be filled, and look ahead to how reporting must change to meet the demands of an increasingly digital world.

On December 11, 2021, in a packed 90-minute agenda, our speakers from across the private sector and civil society discussed why companies should report, what reporting should look like, and how to ensure that these reports are useful to the public. Here are some important takeaways from the discussion:


Expand the content of transparency reports


As Michael Samway of The BHR Group explained, a sector as innovative as the tech sector has not had the same approach when it comes to transparency reports. Ten years after Google blazed the trail with the first report, they largely look the same across the tech sector. Companies can improve how they present these reports. While raw data and statistics are helpful, they do not necessarily tell the full story of how and why companies hand over user data to governments.

Furthermore, though transparency reports usually focus on government requests for user data, there’s no reason why tech companies must limit their reports to this metric. Topics such as terms of service enforcement and content moderation practices are also areas where tech companies can improve their reporting. These issues are essential to freedom of expression and greater transparency would go a long way to fostering trust between companies and the people who rely on their platforms.


Civil society relies on transparency reports


While companies are responsible for creating transparency reports, civil society relies on these reports for advocacy and research. Journalist Louise Matsakis of Rest of World described the importance of transparency reports in exposing government abuse and overreach, illustrating that comprehensive reporting can be a tool to hold repressive governments accountable. For example, when India blocked TikTok, citing tensions in the India-China relationship, TikTok’s transparency report disproved the guise. The report showed that India was one of the top governments requesting blocking or removal of content on the app, indicating that censorship was in fact the driving force behind the Indian government’s move to block the app.

Transparency reports are also useful to researchers. As Elizabeth Renieris of Ranking Digital Rights stated, “process transparency creates the basis by which we can implement effective accountability standards.” Indeed, process transparency helps researchers understand how rules and policies are crafted and implemented. Without this information, the data in transparency reports would not be meaningful.


Transparency reporting should not be limited to the tech sector


The Access Now Transparency Reporting Index shows a wide range of tech companies releasing reports, including social media platforms, telcos, VPN providers, gig employers, and more. However, tech companies are not the only entities that collect and handle people’s personal information. Every company that handles user data should release a transparency report.

Dunstan Allison-Hope of BSR described why non-tech companies should release transparency reports, stating: “At its core, transparency reporting covers the relationships companies have with law enforcement agencies, how they manage those relationships, and how they share data. Tech companies are not the only ones that have those relationships.”


We want to hear from you: Take our survey


Understanding the scope of use cases for transparency reports better equips us to advocate for their existence and improvement. Have you used transparency reports in your work? Please take a few minutes to share your experience with us by completing the survey below. We will share the results of the survey publicly to help policymakers, investors, and other stakeholders understand the impact of transparency reporting.


Help shape the future of transparency reporting at RightsCon 2021: Submit a proposal


The discussion does not end here. As we head into next year’s RightsCon (June 7-11, 2021), we will continue to tackle the topic of corporate accountability, including the important role of transparency reporting in promoting accountability. You can shape the agenda for those conversations by submitting a session in our Call for Proposals, which is open until January 19, 2021. We encourage companies to engage with the wider RightsCon community to find ways to continue to improve accountability measures to the people who depend on and are impacted by their services.