Access Now calls for transparency and human rights due diligence of telecom companies. © Illustration: Access Now

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Business & Human Rights - New technologies and human rights: mind the gap!

New technologies pose inherent risks for the respect for human rights. How do we ensure that they are not developed at the expense of human rights? And how can we mitigate risks? What is the role of the private sector in contributing to avoid human rights impacts and supporting human rights defenders?

On 10 November 2021, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and Access Now convened the first in a series of dialogues on New Technology and Global Human Rights Challenges.  Designed to build bridges between the business sector, civil society and United Nations experts, the objective is to create a common understanding of human rights challenges, identify key risk areas and design solutions that are informed by rightsholders and civil society recommendations. 

The event brought together 15 leading technological and telecommunication companies, seven UN Special Procedures experts and civil society under the Chatham House Rule. ISHR continues to expand its areas of work to cover new spaces where the intersection between business and human rights becomes more sensitive. Below you can find some of the key conclusions of the discussion. For a more complete overview, check our briefing document.

New technologies are affecting many human rights areas. Technology and digital rights issues are becoming ‘mainstreamed’ – incorporated into the core work of human rights advocates and international NGOs, and increasingly seen as central by a range of United Nations’ independent experts

New technologies may pose a major threat if misused, like in cases of mass surveillance, ignition of hate crimes or malign use of deep fakes. But they also present opportunities for positive impact on human rights, such as locating missing persons or holding perpetrators accountable. A critical dialogue between technology and telecommunications companies, UN experts and civil society needs to be strengthened: a multi-stakeholder approach is key to address human rights risks in which new technologies are involved. 

UN experts and private sector: bridging the gap

© Illustration: Access Now

To tackle global human challenges arising from new technologies, collaboration across sectors is necessary. However, civil society, the UN and the private sector struggle to understand each other’s organisational structure, scope of responsibility and expertise on human rights issues. 

On the one hand, UN Special Procedures cannot have a deep technical expertise on technological matters. On the other, the UN structure is fairly difficult to understand for external actors. Moreover, the volume of reports produced by Special Procedures, their format, storage and layout makes them difficult to access, thus undermining their valuable insight for private actors. Yet, these challenges should not be obstacles for developing relationships among different stakeholders. Participants agreed that more could be done to address those gaps. 

Human rights officers in technology and telecommunications companies are indeed in a unique position for promoting, internally and in the industry, human rights issues and raising awareness of topics related to the work of the UN Special Procedures. UN experts, in coordination with company officials, could play a role in gaining internal leverage within companies, so that human rights matters are properly considered by senior officers. Generally, UN experts should be reached out to so they can also contribute to internal company human rights frameworks.

From the UN side, experts highlighted the importance of the private sector participating in periodic calls for inputs for the development of UN policy frameworks. As to the lack of accessibility to the UN complex system, a participant offered that technological companies, often at the vanguard of innovation, could contribute to finding solutions.

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: how to implement them in practice?

The tech sector presents clear risks to human rights. Apart from the above-mentioned threats, privatisation of the education sector was identified as an emerging risk posed by digital technologies. Indeed, if not implemented correctly, the use of new tools might not be responsive to the needs of children in different contexts and cultures, thereby reinforcing a top-down and uniforming approach in the education sector. Human rights due diligence and the co-design of digital technologies should be encouraged to mitigate those risks.

Across the board, participants agreed on the need for focused and practical outputs that can be used by companies when taking strategic and operational decisions that might affect their human rights footprint – for instance, a guidance on risk identification actions that a company needs to put in place before entering a new market. However, companies also underlined the variety of human rights risks, specific situations and contexts each different technology companies faces. This diversity and the specific contextualisation calls for a more pragmatic approach in order to allow for implementation at managerial level. 

UN OHCHR’s Business and Human Rights in Technology Project is a key process that should be supported, developing further mechanisms for transparent participation by civil society and experts. The project provides authoritative guidance on how to implement human rights due diligence in the tech sector. On the other hand, UN experts reiterated the importance of reaching out to UN mandates beyond those explicitly dealing with business and human rights issues, including the 44 Special Procedures, as technology is increasingly becoming a cross-cutting theme.

Digital rights are human rights and new technologies can be used to harm our human rights offline. To ensure their respect and protection, further collaboration, dialogue, transparency, and action is needed to catalyse a truly inclusive multi-stakeholder approach. Tech tools can be enablers of people’s rights. Let’s make sure there is enough knowledge, resources and political will to avoid them becoming the biggest threat to human rights and those defending the civic space.

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