Human rights due diligence in practice in ICT sector

Author :
Cedric Amon

The session was organised by the Global Network Initiative (GNI) and moderated by Mr Mark Stephen (Independent Board Chair, Global Network Initiative). Mr Bennett Freeman (Board of Directors, GNI) opened the discussion and referred to the GNI Principles and Implementation Guidelines which provide some guidance to the public when it comes to human rights due diligence. Other guidance has been provided by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, as well as Business for Social Responsibility.

Mr Dunstan Allison-Hope (Managing-Director, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)) spoke about the importance of focusing on the users that are the most exposed to risks in the information and communications techonology (ICT) sector, such as human rights defenders. He noted that while conducting human rights assessments, the perspective of risks and what was perceived as due diligence obligations varied from one place to another.

In terms of risks, Allison-Hope spoke about the challenges in approaching people who might be under surveillance without exposing them. He further mentioned the risk of exposure when asking companies to be transparent, given that certain types of information might be accessed by parties with malicious intent. Another issue he mentioned was the perception of companies operating in certain countries and withdrawing from them due to uncertain or worsening political conditions. While the public in the Global-North might welcome these steps as a stand against government, it might be a blow for the people within the country, relying on these networks and platforms. Allison-Hope also noted that 'we haven’t fully grappled how to do due diligence in an environment that is changing and uncertain.'

Mr Alex Warofka (Product Policy Manager, Human Rights and Freedom of Expression at Facebook) explained that Facebook tries to implement due diligence processes and monitors them through direct user research on user experience on the platform, asking users about their products. The results are then interpreted not only through human rights due diligence, but also a product lens to optimise privacy and human rights protection by design.

Regarding the risks, Warofka mentioned an example in which Facebook had taken down accounts of senior military officials in Denmark who had participated in human rights abuses offline. They faced public backlash because they had not consulted with human rights defenders on the ground. However, the decision was conscious so as to not endanger the defenders and risk exposing them to backlash from the military for denouncing the actions of the military officials.

According to Warofka, it is almost impossible to create new software and tools that fully comply with due diligence standards in all the markets it penetrates. For this reason, all stakeholders must work together to point out flaws and find sustainable solutions. Additionally, Warofka mentioned the difficulties of conducting human rights assessments on a global scale due to country specific regulations, which is why Facebook is implementing due diligence in its processes by design.

Ms Nicole Karlbach (Global Head, Business & Human Rights, Oath) said that when Yahoo! acquired the social media platform Tumblr, the company recognised the importance of implementing human rights due diligence mechanisms.

The company’s business and human rights team, which is part of the legal team, has since been growing. The team works in close contact with the other departments and engages with different partners to monitor due diligence and their results are publicly available.

Karlbach noted that Yahoo!’s participation in the GNI also reinforced the company’s commitment to its principles.

Ms Meg Roggensack (Interim Executive Director, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)) pointed out that technical equipment also has to be considered along with the other ICT related services. She also reiterated the important role of multistakeholder approaches given that today's challenges are a shared problem and require a range of combined solution strategies. Multistakeholderism can help to identify international frameworks and adapt them to different sectors.

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.

The telecommunications infrastructure is a physical medium through which all Internet traffic flows.

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