Navigating the "Fourth Industrial Revolution": can business and human rights help make tech work for the common good?

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Our executive director, Phil Bloomer, looks at what developments in technology mean for business and human rights.

During the year leading up to the 2016 US elections, there were 19,253 overtly anti-Semitic tweets directed at 800 journalists, generating 45 million ‘impressions’ (views of tweets). Just ten journalists, all of whom are Jewish, received 83% of these tweets.

This was one chilling description of the power of tech to drive hate and discrimination from a tech leader of Silicon Valley who I met this week, referencing this report.

Over the last five years, technology has entered the business and human rights sphere with a power which few of us anticipated. This power has both captured our imaginations with unexpected opportunities and created new risks: the potential of automation to free billions of us from drudgery or to decimate livelihoods; the opportunity of the gig economy to create both shared economies and responsive services, or to undermine the essential rights of workers; the power of big data to strengthen corporate due diligence, or to turbo-drive the existing prejudices and bigotry in our societies. These stark options are crowding in on our communities. The choices we, our governments, and tech companies make will determine whether essential human rights will be realised by the “fourth industrial revolution”.

This is why the Resource Centre has launched our new portal on Tech and Human Rights. The portal is our initial contribution to an emerging group of business and human rights organisations that believe our movement has to do more in this field. Tech now informs the human rights choices of every other business sector. Many in our movement are contributing substantial expertise, but many others are struggling to keep up. We need to further incorporate this analysis into our work: from the protection of civic freedoms and human rights defenders, to fighting land and water grabs, to preventing modern slavery and ensuring a living wage, to ending corruption and tax evasion.

In the last year, tech giants like Google and Facebook have undergone a reverse-metamorphasis in the minds of some: from the butterfly of democratic flowering, to the grub eating at the sacred fruit of rights and democracy. Significant public trust has been squandered with revelations of political manipulation of these platforms in elections and referendums. There is also an urgent need for action to protect privacy and decision-making from algorithmic bias. The EU’s General Data Protection laws, which come into effect in May, could be the start of a wave of more robust government and multilateral action to insist that tech giants become more socially responsible. At the same time, ICT companies’ practices can positively affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy, such as Microsoft’s five-year partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop technology to better predict, analyse and respond to critical human rights situations.

Automation has long threatened the manual jobs of low-skilled, low-waged workers and developments in technology only renew this shift. But now, with the growth in artificial intelligence, traditionally middle-class jobs are also on the line. The threat of job losses is real and could drive new levels of inequality as wages are turned into profit, and capital concentrates even further in the hands of a few. But this is not inevitable. The same wealth could, with enlightened foresight and a focus on rights, end the slog of assembly lines, and provide retraining and work opportunities that pay a living wage. This could liberate working people, while enhancing the provision of rights and services such as health and education for all. The business and human rights movement must bring its powerful insight to the table, upstream, before the norms and rules are set.

The technology and human rights portal seeks to serve all our movement as a digital platform for news, debate and action on technology and human rights. We will cover the latest news and developments. We will encourage thought leaders to explain the new, positive applications and impacts of tech to our field – and there are many - alongside the allegations of abuse, and the threats to rights that emerge.

We encourage all of our allies and partners from civil society, business, and governments to contribute blogs from a rights perspective on the key topics around tech. Please use this platform to demonstrate the potential for a future of shared prosperity and shared security with tech, or conversely one of hyper-inequality, polarisation, and permanent surveillance. We look forward to a robust and enlightening debate that leads to action in business and human rights.