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Balancing Profits and Human Rights: How ICT Companies Can Lift Their Game

DEEPLINKS BLOG
November 20, 2014

Balancing Profits and Human Rights: How ICT Companies Can Lift Their Game

This week EFF attended a meeting of the Human Rights Working Group of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a global industry forum that includes many of the world's largest IT and communications companies, including AT&T, BlackBerry, HP, Microsoft, Telefónica, Verizon, and Vodafone.

Responding to both global and regional calls for industry to share more responsibility for the human rights impacts of ICT products and services, GeSI's human rights project aims to enliven greater vigilance amongst its members as to the human rights impacts of their activities throughout the supply chain.

GeSI members themselves are the best evidence of the need for this project. The most proximate example is given by the meeting's host AT&T, which a few days before the meeting announced that it had ceased to secretly track its mobile Internet users with unblockable super cookies. Frankly, a company with annual revenues exceeding a hundred billion dollars should not be making this kind of glaring obvious privacy mistake to begin with.

The new human rights projects which GeSI members are discussing, and which EFF broadly supports, aim to provide them with a clear road map of possible human rights impacts across the ICT value chain, with particular emphasis on the possible unforeseen impacts of new technologies, and drawing on case studies from GeSI members. We made the clear point that external stakeholders—and not just customers, but also other affected communities—should also be an integral part of that conversation.

Whilst we were grateful for the invitation and happy to contribute our views, we remain to be fully convinced that large ICT companies have yet given enough priority to addressing the human rights impacts of their operations. Too much of the industry discourse around human rights—as the GeSI working group actually acknowledged—revolves around how human rights impacts affect stakeholder perceptions and contribute to business risk, rather than placing the severity of those impacts on vulnerable stakeholders front and center.

This is not to doubt the sincerity of the corporate representatives who participated, many of whose jobs are dedicated to fulfilling their employers' corporate social responsibilities. Even so, there were some grumblings about “budget limitations”, about how activists “love bad news and ignore good news”, and how GeSI should “not be too ambitious” with its human rights projects. These point towards the need for a more fundamental cultural shift within industry boardrooms to ensure that human rights concerns receive priority attention.

It also underlines that we should not rely too heavily on self-regulation and corporate social responsibility to protect users' rights. This lesson was reinforced by EFF's experience with the Global Network Initiative (GNI, a representative from which was also present), which manifestly failed to prevent its corporate members from becoming complicit in the out-of-control NSA spying program.

Even so, we appreciate that GeSI (and the GNI) are conscious of industry's need to improve its sensitivity to its own human rights impacts, and to respond more proactively when vulnerable communities are exposed to harm. The latest planned GeSI human rights projects are a positive indication of this awareness, which we hope will be well supported by participants and will produce outcomes of value. For our part, EFF will surely continue to hold these ICT companies to a high standard should they ever slip up.

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