Business and human rights in technology projects: Applying the UN guiding principles on business and human rights to digital technologies

27 Nov 2019 12:00h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

The session focused on the challenges of applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the technological sector, and the initiatives in place to address these difficulties. The UN Guiding Principles remain a cornerstone to assess compliance with human rights standards. Nevertheless, a challenge is presented to companies trying to apply the principles to new technology-related fields, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition. No prior concrete cases serve as examples. The B-Tech Project aims to develop guidance to private sector companies trying to fulfil their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles.

The defining paper of the B-Tech Project was put under public comment. Mr Mark Hodge (Consultant, B-Tech Project) explained that the next steps will be to restate some core concepts present in the guiding principles that relate to technical companies and to work on case-based scenarios that will help to answer some of the critical questions faced in applying the guiding principles in this sector. In order to do that, goals, partnerships, and consultations will be established for next year.

Questions to the organisers of the session related to the scope of the project and which digital sectors are included, whether the project encompasses the segment of the technical sector that provides solutions to non-technical sectors, the interplay with emerging areas, such as AI, the reasons for developing the project at this moment and whether it includes international humanitarian law in its scope, and the consequences for human rights defenders and vulnerable groups.

Hodge explained that extensive consultation has been conducted in the process of developing the project, and that actors that design, develop, and deploy the technology are included in the project. Humanitarian law was not included in the core areas of the project, but it is being considered and it is a cross-cutting issue that will be included in the research that will guide the project.

The Internet has changed the way that human rights defenders work and are threatened. Ms Peggy Hicks (UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)) said that the protection of human rights defenders is not included in the B-Tech project, but it is important for the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Defenders are part of the system of accountability and remedy.

The B-Tech project is structured in the following areas:

  1. Human rights risks in tech related business models. Embedding due diligence into the process of understanding the impacts of business models.
  2. Human rights due diligence and end user of technology products and services. Companies have a responsibility to prevent, mitigate, and remedy issues that occur not just in their own operations, but across their value chain.
  3. Accountability and remedy, both at a company level and also in the wider ecosystem of remedy. The project will clarify what remedy ecosystem needs to exist around technology.
  4. States’ duty to protect. This area of the project will seek to explain what this duty means in terms of public procurement, trade facilitation, regulation, and corporate governance requirements.

Hodge observed that states are currently in a rush to promote economic growth by fostering and attracting technological innovation, sometimes at any cost. Insurance is needed that this behaviour does not get divorced from commitments to meet human rights obligations.

Comments from the audience positively evaluated the inclusion of public procurement in the project, questioned the challenges of attributing a human rights violation to the private sector, and questioned the incentives for businesses to support and follow these principles.

Hodge mentioned that the investors’ community needs to be involved in the discussions, in order to provide the right incentives for companies to do ‘the right thing.’ Hicks mentioned that the OHCHR has been a central player in attributing human rights violations, by developing methodologies that are seen as credible and reliable, and by producing pertinent reports. Dialogue with stakeholders will be important to fine-tune the best approaches.

By Marilia Maciel