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3 Nov 2023

Phil Bloomer, BHRRC

Tech & tragedy in Gaza & Israel: companies must act to protect human rights

The scale and scope of civilian killing and injury in Gaza must end. It follows the appalling civilian massacres and hostage-taking by Hamas in Israel on the 7 October and the decades of occupation of Gaza by Israel.

The international community has an immense task and responsibility to end this collective punishment and secure the release of hostages. Yet business too has an immediate responsibility to ensure it is not contributing to, or exacerbating the conflict and human suffering on all sides. At this stage of the conflict, the tech sector, and its investors, are most exposed, though others will soon come under the spotlight.

The pressures on both governments and companies to uphold international humanitarian law and business standards is set to grow as the crisis worsens.

For business and investors, the international standards in conflict are clearly defined by the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), supplemented with guidance from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, as well as the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and UN Development Programme. These demand heightened human rights due diligence regarding their operations and supply chains, proportionate to the scale and severity of the risks to people.

Tech companies need to take urgent steps: to counter disinformation; to uphold civilian communication in Gaza – vital to humanitarian and emergency services and alleviating suffering; to moderate platforms to remove hate speech targeting Palestinians or Jews; to block mounting cyber-attacks on human rights defenders and journalists in the region; to tackle censorship; and take action now to preserve evidence that may be vital to future prosecutions of war crimes by any party.

Investors in the tech sector also have obligations and a critical role to play: their engagement influences corporate behaviour which in turn determines the material risks of their investments. They also have obligations towards people trapped in the conflict zone. Given that ESG funds have been heavily invested in the tech sector over the last decade, investors’ heightened due diligence will foster the credibility of ESG portfolios in the future while also contributing to saving lives.

To encourage companies to deliver transparent due diligence, cross-company learning, and to support investor engagement, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is beginning a survey and tracker of companies’ heightened due diligence, as we have done for other conflicts.

But what is the record of the companies so far? Despite the enormous wealth and power of the tech sector, its overall human rights performance in this conflict risks appearing desultory at best, and harmful at worst.

The disinformation and violent content on X (formerly Twitter) has led the European Union to open its first investigation under the Digital Services Act – X must respond or face fines up to 5% of daily turnover. This move has been criticised for lack of due process. Most companies are not responding to allegations and appeals for action, despite clear UN guidance that they should consult externally with independent experts, including from governments, civil society, and national human rights institutions. Our own organisation has taken up 19 allegations with tech companies since the beginning of the conflict and received only one response – from Meta. Meta has been more publicly responsive to concerns raised and speaks with stakeholders. They regularly update their Newsroom post, setting out specific steps they have taken, and have stronger policies in place. Telegram has shut down a channel that was used to foment antisemitic violence in Dagestan.

The international standards of the UNGPs also obliges business and investors to ‘leverage’ their influence with other businesses and governments to reduce harm. This, again, appears to be lacking in corporate and investor strategies despite their enormous power, individually and collectively, and the advanced business networks in the IT sector.

The tech sector’s approach to this conflict needs an urgent reset. It needs to recognise the harm its current approach may contribute to, and its mounting reputational, legal and investor risks.

In the conditions of this conflict, which tragically has the potential to widen at any moment, the following are minimum elements of responsible behaviour by tech companies:

  • Rigorous heightened human rights due diligence programmes that identify salient risks for all populations by severity and likelihood, and actions to reduce or eliminate these risks from operations and supply chains.
  • Systematic elimination of disinformation, extreme violence and hate-speech through augmented active moderation and changes to algorithms.
  • Zero tolerance of cyber-attacks on journalists and human rights defenders and immediate action when notified by dedicating greater resources.
  • Collective advocacy to insist telecommunications and internet services, including cloud, are sustained, alongside rapid re-establishment when they are disrupted, including sustained support to civilian maintenance.
  • Investors need to develop their own heightened due diligence plans and actively engage their tech investees to insist on the same. The investors, from venture capitalists to pension funds, should also use their collective voice in this sector to demand international business standards are upheld.
  • Consult with independent experts, including from civil society, on risk of harm and impacts of business decisions.

The daily devastation in Gaza must end and hostages be released. But while this violence continues, companies in this broader zone of conflict must be far more diligent to ensure they are not exacerbating or contributing to the conflict. The harm they can contribute to civilians is immense, as are the legal and reputational risks they run if they ignore their responsibilities. The contribution they can make to peace is equally great.

By Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

*UPDATED 6 November 2023