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17 Jan 2024

Phil Bloomer, BHRRC

Accountability in conflict: The problem of tech company opacity

Phil Pasquini, Shutterstock

San Francisco, CA – September 8, 2022: Activists demonstrated against project "Nimbus," an Amazon and Google Cloud services surveillance program for Israel government and military.

The killing and suffering of people in Gaza and Israel diminishes us all. As of 14 January, the UN reported that at least 23,968 Palestinians have been killed, 60,582 injured and over 1.9 million people, or nearly 85% of the population, have been displaced – their houses now likely destroyed by Israeli bombs; and over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed and 136 hostages remain captive after three months.

The siege and corralling of Palestinian civilians, and massive loss of civilian life, alongside the destruction of homes and essential infrastructure has led South Africa to accuse Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice, which Israel refutes. But while the Court considers the case, momentum is also growing around demands for accountability from other actors. This includes the companies and investors associated with the conflict. Legal and reputational risks for these firms are rising, including the threat of being asked in UN fora, in domestic courts, and through other mechanisms, how they assess and mitigate human rights risks associated with turning a profit in conditions of intense conflict - what heightened due diligence efforts have been undertaken?

Tech companies will rightly be in the crosshairs of these inquiries.

Such questions will surely be asked of Google and Amazon, developing the US$1.2 billion ‘Project Nimbus’, an initiative intended to provide the Israeli government with an all-encompassing cloud solution. This has sparked public protest and strong internal opposition at the companies, due to its links with surveillance tech allegedly to be used against Palestinian civilians and activists. Google denies that Nimbus will be used in military operations or intelligence services, while Amazon did not respond to the Resource Centre’s invitation to comment.

Other concerning examples of the role of tech companies in the conflict exist. By acts of omission or commission, major social media platforms are alleged to have consistently censored Palestinian voices and facilitated a stream of hate speech that helps dehumanise people on both sides. X (formerly Twitter), for example, allegedly failed to remove antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech, while Meta and Google allegedly allowed paid ads containing hate speech and incitement against Palestinians.

International human rights standards for business in challenging circumstances provide guidance on the bounds of acceptable corporate action in conflict, and seek to ensure irresponsible business is held to account. In conflict settings, companies must demonstrate and report on ‘heightened human rights due diligence’ regarding their operations and value chains to ensure they do not contribute to the drivers of conflict, nor the triggers that spark more intense violence.

But most tech companies appear to be falling at this first fence of transparency.

The Resource Centre has set up Heightened Due Diligence Trackers for conflicts in Myanmar, Ukraine, and now OPT/Israel. In the case of OPT/Israel, the tracker seeks to make public the due diligence measures taken by tech companies, specifically, in response to the conflict. We reached out to 115 tech companies with 23 questions on human rights due diligence concerning their operations, supply chains, and investments there. We have yet to receive a single response to this survey.

Similarly, in approaching seven tech companies since the 7 October attacks, with specific allegations of abuse, just one has responded.

Without due diligence and its essential transparency, company leadership may believe it can plead ignorance regarding the human rights impacts of corporate abuse – allowing perpetuation of those harms. It also prevents civil society from acting as watchdog, and limits identification of better corporate practice and business-to-business learning (sharing better practice on human rights due diligence is surely pre-competitive). With new and emergent due diligence standards, businesses should understand that this opacity also means increased legal and reputational risks over time.

It feels absurd, amid such immense human suffering, to have to plead for the most basic of corporate responsibilities: transparency on human rights due diligence. But it seems we must: the Resource Centre has not faced such universal opacity in either Ukraine or Myanmar. Our partners report similar frustrations. We now need tech companies’ cooperation to improve corporate respect for human rights. Transparency is the first, essential step. Those companies who seek to demonstrate greater responsibility must distinguish themselves by displaying respect for minimum international standards. The alternative is continued loss of public trust, growing risk of allegations of profit-seeking at the expense of civilians in conflict, and the possibility of real consequences for these firms and their investors down the line.

By Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, BHRRC