In focus: Tech sector transparency & the Global South
As we enter 2024, the climate crisis, rise in authoritarianism, and deepened global poverty and inequality, among other challenges, show no signs of abating. Against this complex landscape, information and communication technology companies play a pivotal role in shaping human rights outcomes. Through their operations, products, services, business models, and actions or omissions, these companies can both promote and severely impact the human rights of all, with particular ramifications for individuals in the Global South when technology firms fail to recognise and adhere to their human rights responsibilities.
The Resource Centre’s monitoring of corporate abuse allegations related to the tech sector since 2002 makes this clear: numerous examples of censorship, online gender violence, surveillance, unabated spread of harmful content, online sexual exploitation, indiscriminate natural resources and data extractivism, and exploitative working conditions have been recorded – each compounding the harms often already faced by populations in these countries, in particular.
In the last year alone, the Resource Centre added 1,447 articles, company responses and other resources to its open-access database of materials on human rights and the technology sector. We requested responses to specific allegations of human rights abuse from technology companies 161 times. Among the issues captured are allegations related to surveillance of human rights defenders, journalists and civil society organisations, violations of users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression, online gender violence, indiscriminate spread of disinformation and harmful content, children sexual exploitation, labour rights violations, among many others.
Over half (54%) of the invitations to respond were related to human rights harms in the Global South. However, the response rate from technology companies operating in these countries was below 45%.
This is a critical finding, as corporate transparency and stakeholder engagement remain critical pillars of effective human rights due diligence, in order to ensure true corporate accountability. Civil society organisations in the Global South have repeatedly outlined the particular obstacles they face in engaging with or holding tech companies accountable: lack of information, limited efforts by companies to genuinely cooperate in addressing negative impacts on human rights in their communities, coupled with opaque business policies, inaccessible company structures and discriminatory practices that deepen the power imbalance, exacerbating corporate impunity in over half the world. This is perhaps most evident in conflict settings and challenging circumstances where companies must demonstrate and report on their best practices in line with the international human rights standards. However, as we note in the context of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, most tech companies appear to be falling at this first fence of transparency.
This year’s update to the Resource Centre’s Technology Company Dashboards seeks to shine a light on precisely these issues, tracking and contextualising companies' responses to allegations of abuse and commitments by technology firms across the world to improve transparency and corporate accountability by the sector. Each Dashboard provides a snapshot of tech company’s human rights profile, including: company information, details of human rights allegations, lawsuits over alleged human rights violations, the most frequently associated rights issues, and available benchmark scores from civil society initiatives that we have collected about each company. This year, we added 40 new companies to our Dashboard coverage, focusing specifically on companies operating in the Global South, to bring the total number of Tech Company Dashboards to 121 companies across a range of industries, including telecommunications, social media, e-commerce, data brokers, among others. Eighteen of the newly added companies are firms operating in Africa.
Even a high-level analysis of this year’s companies now included in our Dashboards reveals significant gaps in the most basic human rights policy by the sector – many of which echo the concerns raised by civil society and rightsholders around the world, and particularly the Global South, in respect of the impacts of tech products, operations, and platforms.
Of the 121 tracked technology companies:
- 29% lack a business code of conduct;
- 60% lack human rights policies to guide their operations and relationships with affected communities;
- 73% have not published transparency reports which provide insights into how companies enforce their policies and detail on government requests for user’s data, internet shutdowns or content removal;
- Only 29% of the 31 telecommunications companies operating in the Global South provide transparency reports and only 45% of them have a human rights policy;
- Only 22% of the 49 companies headquartered in the Global South (including in countries such as Egypt, Myanmar, Sudan, UAE and Vietnam), have a human rights policy in place;
- Only 46% of the 41 companies offering services through digital platforms, including social networks, disclose transparency reports, and just 24% of them have publicly available human rights policies on their websites— all of which operate in Global South countries.
These findings drawn from the Dashboards are alarming, especially recognising the limitations on civic freedoms in many of these countries. Thus, the absence of transparency reports from technology companies leaves users in the dark regarding the scope and scale of threats against privacy and freedom of expression rights that are posed when requests from third-party actors, including government entities, are made. These reports play a vital role in safeguarding users against abuses of power, especially in authoritative regimes. Moreover, absence of a human rights policy suggests failure to formally integrate a company’s responsibility to respect human rights into its business practices, leaving impacted communities, human rights defenders, and workers uninformed about the company’s commitments to human rights.
Given tech companies’ vast scope for impacting human rights, the Dashboards make clear the importance of the sector addressing critical gaps in its relevant practices and policies. While the Dashboards bring into sharp relief that some technology companies are committing to better practices, including in the Global South, the replications of these efforts are urgent to promote a more balanced power dynamic, fostering increased corporate accountability in these countries. Closing these gaps becomes a challenge that both industry leaders and laggards must collectively prioritise to demonstrate their responsibility to respect human rights.
Danny Rayman is Technology and Human Rights Researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
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