Forum debate: Are tech companies a threat to human rights?

Author :
Stefania Grottola

The session was organised by the German Institute for Human Rights and moderated by Mr Christopher Schuller (German Institute for Human Rights). The forum was not a panel discussion, but a debating exercise in which the speakers did not represent their own ideas nor those of their organisations. It followed the British parliamentary debate format: Four speakers took the floor - two in support of - and two in opposition to - the question, 'Are tech companies a threat to human rights?'.

Ms Isabel Ebert (University of St. Gallen) and Ms Coraline Ada Ehmke (Software engineer and creator, Contributor Covenant) both agreed that tech companies are a threat to human rights, while Mr Faris Natour (Co-Founder and Principal, Article One) and Mr Luis Neves (Managing Director and CEO, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI)) argued against this statement, saying that tech companies are not a threat to human rights.

The argument supporting the idea that tech companies are a threat to human rights identified tech companies as the perseverance of capitalism at the expense of the protection of human rights. The argument states that through active or passive actions, tech companies are perpetuating the framework of power and oppression. To this extent, states are not capable of regulating them and their services effectively. Indeed, an example of this is shown by algorithms which are not neutral, but maintain human biases in search engines. Moreover, it was argued that tech platforms are guilty of not preventing the abuse of technology that has influenced elections during the last few years. Furthermore, there is an ignorance of the power that comes with the so called data-driven management. Human rights are defined and limited by tech companies, abusing transparency and fairness, and reinforcing human biases through technology. Finally, the Surveillance Innovation Complex is the most disruptive and dangerous threat to human rights, posed by the activities of tech companies.

The argument opposing the idea that tech companies are a threat to human rights identifies four levels of responsibility: political, corporate, external, and individual. Moreover, technology can help address the following areas of concern. For instance, the fight against climate change can benefit from new technologies and their ability to create new means for collaboration and engagement without making people travel from one place to another. The management of resources represents another aspect that should be considered through the lens of the positive impact of technology, enabling engagement at low to no price. Moreover, with regard to the increase of inequalities, it should be noted that it is not only companies’ responsibility. Finally, it was noted that a major challenge faced by tech companies and human rights is related to artificial intelligence (AI). Despite the last concerns, technology has been a good turnpoint for human rights: new digital tools implement connectivity and engagement; AI has improved education and health; and crimes such as slavery and human trafficking can be better identified through the use of information and communications technology (ICT). Thus, it was argued that it is crucial to understand the benefits of technology and re-stress the importance of digital trust and responsibility. There is a need to make sure that principles are respected and that people trust the technology.

Explore the issues

The human rights basket includes online aspects of freedom of expression, privacy and data protection, rights of people with disabilities and women’s rights online. Yet, other human rights come into place in the realm of digital policy, such as children’s rights, and rights afforded to journalists and the press.

The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online is the underlying principle for human rights on the Internet, and has been firmly established by the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council resolutions.

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