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Opinion

New company profiles illuminate human rights issues across the technology sector

What is the collective noun for Zoom calls – a kaleidoscope of Zooms? An exhaustion of Zooms? While neither might have resonated a little over a year ago, the video conferencing platform is one of many digital technologies to see usage soar as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more business, education, and leisure activity online. These tools can help enable various rights such as access to information, but the acceleration of technological interventions across our lives has also carried opportunities for human rights abuse, such as censorship and the undermining of privacy, inadequate protections for gig workers, and public and employee surveillance.

To help reveal how such technologies and their producers operate, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has developed ‘dashboards’ for 40 companies across the technology sector. These provide ready access to a suite of information about company policy and practice in relation to human rights. The companies were selected based on their size, coverage, and regional diversity, within four (sometimes overlapping) subsectors: digital platforms, telecommunications, hardware or electronics, and surveillance technologies.

Alongside our archive of allegations and engagement with each company, the dashboards feature financial information, lawsuits relating to rights violations, and a set of indicators reflecting the company’s commitments to multi-stakeholder initiatives on freedom of expression and sustainability. Where available they also present the company’s evaluations in leading civil society benchmark ratings, including on corporate governance and supply chain labour, showing changes over time as well as relative performance across the sector. This is the first time this range of analyses of company policy and information about companies’ human rights track records and risks is collected in one place, providing an important resource for civil society and investors to hold technology companies to account.

BHRRC

Among the issues the dashboards capture are violations of users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression, particularly apparent in our focus on 11 companies that make surveillance technologies. It reveals numerous allegations related to the surveillance of human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society organisations by governments deploying these technologies. These dashboards also include relevant legal challenges, highlighting the legal risks associated with investing in or doing business with these companies. One example is the ongoing lawsuit filed by WhatsApp and Facebook against NSO Group for allegedly using WhatsApp’s servers to plant spyware on 1,400 user devices worldwide.

Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations has found sophisticated surveillance technology products marketed to governments to fight crime have been used to target journalists and their sources. Such spyware can expose private communications, track a journalist’s movements, and put targets at risk of physical harm and censorship. They have attributed attacks to actors in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Mexico, and India, against journalists such as Omar Radi and Maati Monjib in Morocco, who have been jailed for their work.

Disappointingly, just 13 of the companies have published transparency reports in the past, and not all of these reports are up to date. Transparency reporting allows companies to disclose threats to privacy and free expression from government abuse, offering users greater understanding of company responses and safeguards. It also provides investors with a way to ensure companies are upholding their duty to respect human rights.

While more companies have begun publishing transparency reports across the sector, Access Now’s Transparency Reporting Index finds the growth rate of companies publishing transparency reports has been decreasing persistently since 2013. We call on all technology companies to release transparency reports as a responsibility to protect user rights and the sector.

Just five companies in our list are members of the Global Network Initiative (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Orange, and Vodafone), a multi-stakeholder initiative that works to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy rights in the ICT industry. More companies could commit to the GNI Principles to protect these human rights globally, and strengthen company practice in the face of internet shutdown orders from governments – which have involved several featured telecommunications companies, including MTN, Vodafone, Safaricom, Orange, and Bharti Airtel.

BHRRC

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, which includes establishing policy commitments and implementation processes. We found only a little over half (22) the companies in our ICT dashboards have published human rights policies. Many of these are weak when it comes to enforcement and access to remedy, and should be strengthened through robust mechanisms to account for both, as the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes clear.

Most of the companies featured in the 2020 Corporate Accountability Index saw their scores decrease from the previous year, partly a result of the introduction of new indicators to assess companies’ treatment of targeted advertising and algorithmic systems. These are key areas for proactive impact assessments and transparency, but instead companies are withholding from users the ways their personal data is used to drive profits. While more platform companies are publishing information about account removals, numerous reporting gaps remain.

Across the benchmark rankings, several companies stand out. Twitter topped the Corporate Accountability Index, but only with a score of 53 out of 100, and performed less well on the Digital Inclusion Benchmark, scoring 0.42 out of 2 (for more information on methodology and scoring, please see individual benchmark pages). Etisalat scored very low on the Corporate Accountability Index (10 out of 100), recording a slight improvement from the previous year. Qualcomm scored poorly across the Corporate Human Rights Benchmarks and KnowTheChain rankings, although it performed slightly better than some of its peers in the digital inclusion measure.

Our analysis of these 40 technology companies finds insufficient transparency and mechanisms for accountability that would enshrine user rights and strengthen safeguards across the technology sector. Few companies are enacting adequate measures for data protection, or robust human rights due diligence measures necessary for burgeoning issues in the development of artificial intelligence and 5G. As digital technologies become increasingly sophisticated and entwined in the ways we live, work, and communicate, it is imperative companies bolster commitments and adherence to users’ fundamental rights to expression, information, and privacy.

In the below table, benchmark rankings have been adjusted to a scale of 0-1 to give a visual representation of relative scale.