Information Communication Technologies (ICT) companies have determining effects across personal, professional, social and political facets of our lives, for better and for worse. While increased productivity, access to information and efficiency are hallmarks of the expansive ICT sector, so too are the negative consequences of many of its products and services: unchecked proliferation of hate speech, misinformation, intrusive surveillance, manipulative algorithms, discriminatory artificial intelligence (AI) and environmental damage in the form of a growing carbon footprint and dumping of e-waste. Against this background, the role of civil society in calling for corporate accountability and transparency remains both vitally important and uniquely challenging.
In recent years, civil society organisations and human rights defenders (HRDs) have sought to engage with ICT companies to ensure users’ rights are protected. Their experiences make clear that despite these efforts, tech companies have a significant accountability gap to close. This is of particular concern in the Global South, where authoritarian regimes have in many cases diminished the rule of law, and regulations or mechanisms for bringing companies to justice are non-existent or overbroad and ineffective. HRDs report that the challenges faced by digital rights groups working to hold companies accountable in the Global South, along with the nature and severity of digital rights issues faced, differ from those of their counterparts in Europe and the United States of America, where most of these companies are domiciled or headquartered. Looking at a range of illustrative struggles and strategies from the Global South may pave the way for strengthening the tech accountability and justice movement as a whole.
This analysis draws on consultations and interviews with civil society groups and digital rights defenders in the Global South, including those that have actively engaged with tech companies, desk research, and reflections from the Resource Centre’s experience. We explore three specific examples from civil society groups demanding tech sector accountability in Myanmar, Chile, and a regional effort in Africa. These cases, together with reflections from interviews with other activists and practitioners conducted over the course of a year in 11 countries, provide detail on tools and strategies currently in use. We provide recommendations for strengthening the movement for accountability for rights infringements, partly grounded in lessons learned from these case studies.
While progress has been made, these reflections and insights demonstrate the journey towards tech sector accountability remains in its nascent stages, with critical implications for civil society around the world, and for the Global South in particular. Challenges in engaging and countering tech companies persist. As we witness the continued growth of tech products, services and impacts – from the deployment of coercive and discriminatory algorithms, law enforcement using faulty facial recognition, surveillance software in use by irresponsible parties, gig workers being misclassified as ‘self-employed’ – a renewed focus on generating a robust evidence base, continued capacity building, coordination, and resource generation to support efforts to counter harm should be immediate priorities for the movement.
Our research shows that while civil society engagement and collaboration with tech companies has yielded some positive results - such as in the modifications made by Facebook and Twitter to their policies on non-consensual sharing of images - significant challenges remain. Much of the engagement currently taking place focuses on content moderation and privacy-related concerns, and civil society groups report differing results depending on the company and specific issue. Digital defenders report a lack of trust in the sector and limited efforts for genuine cooperation by companies. While opportunities for civil society to meet with tech company representatives are reported to have increased and the number of consultations organised by the private sector has likewise improved, especially in matters relating to regulation, defenders report that these engagements are frequently “superficial” and often appear to be mere box-ticking exercises.
A number of key obstacles appear to be at the root of these civil society experiences:
Opaque business practices
The primary struggle for civil society in holding companies accountable is directly related to core business practices. In the first instance, there is a lack of available data on ICT company operations and decision-making processes, as well as the sharing of user information with States and law enforcement agencies. Access to information is critical for enabling civil society and HRDs to monitor companies and to engage in informed dialogue about impacts and decisions that directly affect their lives. Without access to this information, engagement with corporate actors is more likely to remain surface-level. Groups in the Global South have posited that such data is typically more accessible to civil society, researchers, and academics in the Global North, where many tech companies are headquartered.
Second, groups and organisations have noted limited productivity in their engagements with tech companies due to the unwillingness of corporate actors to recognise power structures and the wide-ranging impacts of their products or operations. Civil society is frequently left to make a ‘good business case’ for protecting rights, instead of companies recognising it to be as essential an objective as profit-making. This is a particular challenge when groups (often from the Global South) try to address the needs of ‘smaller’ communities or impacts in jurisdictions where the companies do not have offices or sufficient staff to properly engage with these concerns. When engagements do take place, interviewees reported they are often limited to specific instances of concern or policy measures rather than broader discussion of companies’ business models and systemic lack of accountability. Furthermore, stakeholder engagements inherently lack openness where non-disclosure agreements are required – an increasingly common practice by companies – which prevents collaboration and information sharing among civil society groups.
Finally, concerning content moderation, some of the significant challenges reported included a lack of resources allocated by companies, limited understanding of language or contextual nuances and an overall lack of clarity about how platforms set, implement and update their policies or community guidelines. Policy guidelines and responses of companies to allegations of rights infringements are not always available in different languages, limiting the ability of defenders to sufficiently engage on these issues with the communities on the ground.
Inaccesible company structures
HRDs and civil society groups report it is difficult and often time consuming to establish contact with companies and to identify the relevant officials who have the necessary expertise and decision-making authority to address human rights concerns regarding the ICT sector’s products and services. Big tech platforms are often underpinned by complex operational structures, making it harder for groups to engage effectively. Policy teams are often the only groups civil society is given access to, while other teams, such as marketing departments, developers or design personnel, are the ones which hold the key to solutions. Civil society reports being able to build personal relationships with decision-makers at tech firms on occasion, but the high rate of turnover in the industry means these relationships need to be continually re-established. There are persisting concerns regarding the safety of defenders engaging or challenging companies, especially on issues relating to the state. Further, critical decisions by companies are frequently made by their officials based at company headquarters in the Global North even though the engagement with civil society is with their representatives in the countries where violations take place, including in the Global South. Interviewees from civil society suggested this may lead to outcomes ill-suited to local contexts and failures to address rights issues raised by local organisations.
Civil society, particularly in the Global South, also reports limited access to the investors and venture capitalists which fund these companies, and which in other instances have represented an important avenue for pressing for better corporate practice.
While challenges with companies persist, internal limitations also impede civil society’s ability to effectively advocate for accountability. Capacity building to strengthen technical analysis and solution-building skillss, as well as company engagement techniques, is becoming increasingly important. The limited visibility of digital rights groups in traditional business and human rights spaces or platforms also needs to be tackled. Interviewees report resource allocation to sharpen private sector engagement is not always a priority area for donors and hence is done by staff already stretched thin. Tech platform accountability requires long-term, sustained funding to build internal capacity and make inroads into the ecosystem of tech companies, from which civil society is largely cut off. There is a need for greater collaboration and coordination so knowledge can be shared and lessons learned from the few groups engaging in targeted advocacy. Opportunities for the labour, environmental, business and human rights, and digital rights movements to collaborate and act in solidarity remain underexplored.
Lack of whistleblower protection
There is much to learn about tackling endemic abuse from current and former employees in tech companies - the whistleblowers. Despite the costs, consequences, grave power imbalances and gendered impacts, these courageous actors have helped unearth evidence on problematic practices as we have seen in the cases of Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and more recently with the Facebook papers. Despite the lack of whistleblower protections in this under-regulated and opaque sector, some have come forward risking their careers and health. However, ties between the digital rights movement and tech workers, including whistleblowers, remain sporadic.
There is a perception ICT companies are more engaged with civil society organisations based in the Global North - perhaps due to proximity and legal pressure in headquarter countries. Groups in the Global South also express suspicion this might be a deliberate strategy adopted by companies to weaken solidarity between groups in the Global North and South, enabling companies to give an impression of open engagement in letter only. This is augmented by the selective provision of grants or financial support for specific tasks or projects by companies to a select few civil society groups. Additionally, some interviewed in this process reported that existing civil society and multi-stakeholder networks dedicated to discussing platform accountability are US- or Europe-centric, with insufficient space for groups and defenders from the Global South to participate and directly provide their perspectives.
3 examples of effective action
Civil society engagement with tech companies ranges from raising concerns about content takedowns on specific topics to asking for sweeping design changes in high-risk products. Civil society has been actively pushing for corporate policy reform, seeking to prevent contracts with irresponsible parties and requiring impact assessments or due diligence processes. The following three examples showcase some strategies and experiences of civil society in the Global South, highlighting challenges and opportunities for others seeking to hold tech companies to account for their human rights harms.
Facebook and the Rohingya genocide
Multiple reports from civil society groups have highlighted the role of Facebook (now Meta) in normalising hate against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar through its failure to moderate, failure to act on notorious actors promoting genocide, and through its algorithmic systems and monetisation programs which fuelled the production and amplification of harmful anti-Rohingya content.
Despite warnings and escalation letters from civil society, the company failed to act in a timely manner or take sufficient measures to avoid contributing to the spread of this content.
In 2017, a group of 13 digital rights organisations, including Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) Burma Monitor and Phandeeyar, prepared a memo detailing evidence of Facebook’s failure to stop the spread of hate content against the Rohingya on its platform. This memo was used as the basis to advocate with the company and other actors to improve Meta’s response to the crisis. The UN subsequently made a public statement that the company had played a "determining role" in the situation. Meta’s founder Mark Zuckerberg responded that Facebook had credible processes in place to deal with hate content in Myanmar and referred to a particularly dangerous incident which had been the subject of a civil society escalation. Civil society groups, in an open letter, called Mark Zuckerberg out for misrepresenting the situation and taking credit for systems which were non-existent. The open letter used the #DearMark hashtag, which was amplified and appropriated by a number of other countries seeking to draw attention to Meta’s failures in the Global South. The exchange between civil society groups and Mark Zuckerberg was covered in leading international media outlets and questions were asked in the subsequent US Senate hearing, adding pressure.
“We were able to capitalize on this advocacy window because we had documented irrefutable evidence, were able to speak with one collective voice, and had the networks to reach out to international media and senate members. This is why we were effective," said Htaike Htaike of MIDO and Victoire Rio of the Myanmar Tech Accountability Network (MTAN).
The collective approach of Myanmar civil society contributed to increasing international pressure and public outcry, which ultimately resulted in several important changes in how the company deals with high-risk markets. This included the establishment of a team to look at violent content in at-risk countries and the hiring of dedicated staff responsible for key countries.
The concerted efforts of civil society groups in Myanmar included ongoing evidence gathering, direct, in-person engagement with company staff, public pressure through open letters, a strong social media campaign, seeking widespread coverage in international media sources, and advocating with officials in the company's domicile country.
¿Quién defiende tus datos?
Since 2016, Derechos Digitales has published an annual report analysing data protection practices of major telecommunications (telecom) and internet service providers in Chile. ¿Quién defiende tus datos? (Who defends your data?) is part of a series of similar studies carried out in Latin America and Spain and is inspired by "Who Has Your Back?", devised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in the United States and adapted to the Chilean context.
The publishers of the report engage with a range of civil society actors before approaching companies with specific indicators. Companies are asked to complete an online questionnaire, which covers data management and protection practices, as they relate to their guidelines for sharing user data with other companies, law enforcement agencies, prosecutorial agencies, and/or other government entities. After sending the questionnaire, Derechos Digitales continues to engage with the companies through follow-up questions and online meetings. Derechos Digitales has found that less responsive companies tend to score lower in the assessment. However, overall engagement is generally solid, and many companies share information on the process in their reports and promotional materials.
Despite this high level of engagement, some challenges remain. “The overarching objective of this initiative is catalyzing policy and behaviour change with companies, not only disclosure of existing practices. However, many participating companies view this as simply a measurement of current practice and don’t act on the recommendations for improvements”, said Juan Carlos Lara of Derechos Digitales.
Another challenge is that the corporate employee charged with responding is usually not a key decision-maker within the company. Some companies have also disagreed with their ratings and publicly demanded they be revised. The core overarching challenge reported by Derechos Digitales is that most companies only undertake the minimum action necessary to be compliant with domestic data protection and privacy laws – which have low thresholds – and do not see the need to take additional steps toward strengthen their practices to better protect users.
The systematic development of comparative rankings based on a clear methodology – which was developed by consulting a range of stakeholders, including companies – has proven to be a powerful tool. The consistent production of the report, and engaging with companies in the process, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the state of digital rights over a period of time and has enabled better information exchanges for the improvement of data management practices.
Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum
The Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (#DRIF) is a platform for critical conversations on digital policy in Africa. With the help and collaboration of several partners, Paradigm Initiative coordinates this annual event, bringing together different stakeholders, including companies, to work together on listening, collaboration and solution development. In 2022, more than 1,300 people attended DRIF with 30 virtual and in-person sessions.
Despite repeated attempts, private sector participation remains low, especially among telecom operators and social media platforms. For instance, only 5% of participants in the 2022 event were representatives from the private sector. While some companies are willing to provide financial support, they have shown reluctance to attend the convening or prior discussions. Civil society groups frequently find requests to meet with companies, especially telecom operators, remain unanswered. Efforts to send such requests as individual organisations and in collaboration with other national or international groups have not yielded results..
Multi-stakeholder convenings such as DRIF where governments, civil society, the technical community and academia participate are important spaces for companies to better understand the challenges posed by their operations and to explore mutually beneficial avenues to address and mitigate them. “Overall, our hope is that all stakeholders recognise the value of engagements with each other and that in the coming years there will be a significant increase in the number and depth of engagements from tech companies in such critical spaces organised by groups in the Global South,” said Thobekile Matimbe, Paradigm Initiative.
National and regional convenings which bring together a range of stakeholders in the Global South are critical spaces where civil society actors can present their analysis, have the space for discussing context-specific issues, coordinate among themselves and collectively engage with companies. This also ensures civil society is in control of the agenda and direction of the discussions, allowing for key concerns to be highlighted and voices that are otherwise ignored to be platformed.
Other strategies and spaces
In addition to the above, advocacy with states and regulators for legislative and policy reform on multiple fronts such as intermediary liability laws, due diligence policies and data protection are evolving, despite challenges in dealing with authoritarian regimes where regulation often leads to further shrinking civil space. Courts and specialised bodies on privacy or anti-competition have increasingly taken note of the unregulated operations of these companies with the help of strategic litigation, in which civil society has played a vital role. Collaboration with international media, advocacy with governments in the Global North and UN mechanisms have also yielded results by effectively platforming the concerns of civil society in the Global South.
Other spaces and relationships provide increasing opportunity for civil society of the Global South to press for corporate accountability of the ICT sector. Research reflects that groups and defenders have worked with national regulatory authorities and governments; civil and criminal courts; statutory bodies such as competition and privacy authorities; regional human rights bodies in Africa and Latin America; international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, special procedures and Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and more particularly with the B-Tech Project. Similarly, multilateral initiatives such as the Freedom Online Coalition, Christchurch Call and Tech for Democracy are evolving with significant participation of civil society. Important multi-stakeholder platforms such as the national, regional and global Internet Governance Forum and industry bodies such as the Facebook Oversight Board, Asia Internet Coalition, ALAI industry group or Chile Telecos and bodies with industry membership such as the Global Network Initiative have also played roles in expanding avenues for engagement and increased corporate accountability. Networks of civil society organisations focused on tech accountability including the Southeast Asian Coalition on Tech Accountability, Myanmar Tech Accountability Network and the Next Billion Network have been identified as useful spaces for coordination and information sharing.
To move the needle on corporate accountability in the tech sector and to address the current challenges to engaging these companies, the following areas need addressing.
A key challenge is access to reliable, disaggregated data and evidence of systemic failures of tech companies, to counter company responses that cast rights allegations as one-off occurrences and side-step discussion of necessary systemic change. Disaggregated data, including sex, gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability, would provide insights on the intersectional impacts of human rights violations linked to tech companies’ products and operations. Regularly monitoring company activities, including tracking letters sent to them and their responses would lay the foundation for further advocacy and compelling analysis which could expose the harmful elements of the core business models of these companies. Tracking commitments and undertakings given by companies to civil society and other authorities is critical for effective analysis of their performance and outcomes of due diligence processes.
Building the requisite technical knowledge and skills to effectively hold the tech sector to account is essential to deliver effective advocacy and ensure civil society in the Global South becomes more visible in corporate accountability advocacy spaces. Developing shared language on digital justice, rights-based approaches and feminist perspectives would lead to improved arguments and demands for responsible behaviour of companies. Sharing capacity, contacts/networks and technical resources together would strengthen the community and provide critical opportunities to learn from each other. This capacity building work could also rely on the experiences and expertise of Global South actors who have challenged other industries.
While instances of impactful engagement with companies exist, greater coordination among civil society groups often results in greater impact. Beyond coordination, there is a pressing need for alliances with feminist and other marginalised rights groups as well as groups that play a central role in the broader business and human rights movement. Growing unionisation of tech workers in the face of mass layoffs and poor working conditions presents a unique opportunity to forge alliances between the labour rights and digital rights movements. These coalitions could ultimately disrupt problematic practices such as the use of NDAs, which are currently a precondition for engagement with many companies. Irrespective of the form these coalitions or networks take, joint advocacy initiatives and strategies which amplify the work of different actors would pave the way for greater collaborations and defence against companies providing selective information or solutions at the national, regional and international levels.
Resource generation and sharing:
The lack of financial and human resources dedicated to advocating for corporate accountability in the tech sector is a critical challenge, and makes systematic tracking of companies very challenging. This is due to a lack of focus on tech accountability among donors keen to support digital rights work, alongside a tech sector blind spot among donors who support corporate accountability work. Significant effort is required to enable donors to identify and provide sustained support to this critical area of work, properly resource capacity building, and build Global South-led spaces on corporate accountability in the tech sector. Sustained funding and strengthening of digital rights defenders in the Global South would ultimately contribute to shifting existing power dynamics.
While not exhaustive, these urgent priorities would go far to help realise the right to accountable technologies. Challenging and helping tech companies to take responsibility to respect rights requires an interrogation of business models currently fixated on optimisation and disruption, and which frequently take too little cognisance of the rights implications of their products and services. With increasing unionisation of tech workers and greater collaboration with digital rights defenders, the future of the movement will unquestionably seek continued engagement with companies in pursuit of increased corporate accountability.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability
A roadmap to protect online freedom of expression and innovation
Declaration of principles for content and platform governance in times of crisis
Access Now's principles for businesses in conflict-affected areas
Engaging tech companies on human rights
A how-to guide for civil society from Global Partners Digital and Global Network Initiative
Exploring the role of public participation in commercial AI labs
Ada Lovelace Institute on public participation approaches used by the technology sector
Implementing the UNGPs
ICT sector guide on implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
The UNGPs in the age of tech
A B-Tech Foundational Paper
Tech company dashboards
Explore our data on 80+ tech companies
Ranking Digital Rights evaluates some of the world’s most powerful digital platforms on their policies and practices
Framework for Meaningful Engagement: Human rights Impact Assessments of AI
Framework aiming to address the need for meaningful engagement of those most affected in the context of Human rights impact assessments of AI systems
Private Tech Sector Engagement with Global Civil Society
Research on the shortcomings in the current engagement and consultation practices between the private tech sector and civil society stakeholders on a global scale
RDR Knowledge Center
Space where researchers can access all the guidance needed to understand how to interpret and assess RDR indicators
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is grateful to all organisations and individuals who have generously shared their time, contacts, knowledge, and energy with us, to be able to produce this report. We are particularly grateful for the assistance and support provided by:
- Anja Kovacs
- Carolina Botero, Fundación Karisma
- Htaike Htaike, MIDO
- Juan Carlos Lara, Derechos Digitales
- Juan Parra, Fundación Karisma
- Karen Vergara, ONG Amaranta
- María del Pilar Saenz, Fundación Karisma
- Paula Martins, Association for Progressive Communications
- Prateek Waghre, Internet Freedom Foundation
- Thobekile Matimbe, Paradigm Initiative
- Victoire Rio, MIDO