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Business & Human Rights: will digital technologies bring new unknown threats to human rights?

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the risk of human rights violations online. Do technology companies have human rights obligations? What are they? Do these private actors have a duty to promote human dignity online?

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) co-organised a side event to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly on the Private Sector Responsibilities to Promote Human Dignity Online held on 22 September 2021. The event brought together panelists from the private sector with States and civil society to discuss the intersection of digital technology and the human rights obligations of the private sector. ISHR continues to expand its areas of work to cover new spaces where the intersection between business and human rights becomes more sensitive.

Emerging technologies are a “double edged sword” for human rights. New technologies have the potential to promote human rights and increase civic engagement, but they also pose a risk to human rights and democracy online. Close cooperation from all stakeholders is essential to address these challenges. A few weeks ago, Jeppe Kofod, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Denmark emphasised the importance of a joint effort from both States and the tech sector to promote human rights and democracy.   

H.E. Choi Jongmoon, Vice Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea echoed Kofod: “On the one hand it has opened greater access for individuals to education, healthcare and economic activities; however, the misuse of technologies can fuel the spread of misinformation, online discrimination and even cyber-attacks on critical infrastructures which can harm the fundamental rights of individuals.”

Digital technology is here to stay, and it will vertebrate our social lives, entertainment, culture and economic activities. In this regard, Freida Roslin, Danish Youth Delegate for the UN noted that the power of tech companies is on the rise with limited regulations. Young people, in particular, call to have their rights and dignity ensured online. 

To better control the potential harm from emerging digital technologies, Isedua Oribhabor from Access Now, a leading organisation on Technology and Human Rights, encouraged stakeholders to work closely with civil society to understand where potential risks may arise from when considering adopting new and emerging technologies. 

Meanwhile, Anita Ramasastry, Member of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, called for early intervention from companies to prevent potential human rights violations, advocating for companies to assess their business models and adapt to mitigate human rights risks and impacts. Providing a remedy to human rights violations caused by digital technologies starts with human right due diligence as it is at this stage that the company can make the difference, preventing harm to people. 

Covid-19: the acceleration of human rights risks 

The areas where human rights and digital technologies intersect are vast, ranging from long standing issues such as equality and discrimanation, civic space, privacy and surveillance data to the emerging world of artificial intelligence. 

In many cases, our reliance on technology has been accelerated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic with many of us turning to the online sphere to keep in contact with friends and family, to work and learn from home. However, some of the emerging challenges of digital technology specific to Covid-19 include privacy issues and the digital divide which was brought to the fore during the pandemic. Eamon Gilmore, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights highlighted this during the discussion: “the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, but it has also unfortunately fast tracked the use of new technologies to suppress human rights through mass surveillance and cyber harassment.”

The UN Secretary General warned the international community last year, when he stated that “together, as we seek to recover from the pandemic, we must learn to better curtail harmful use of digital technology and to better unleash its power as a democratizing force and an enabler.” It is within this context that the private sector must be encouraged to do more to protect and promote human rights. To optimise efforts, this must be situated within a multisectoral, human rights-based approach. Innovation is needed also to tackle these risks.

What’s coming next?

New digital technology, communication tools, social media platforms and other innovations are becoming increasingly influential in many spheres of our daily lives. These new technologies have unprecedented influence on social, political and economic dynamics. While they can be instrumental in economic growth and contribute positively to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, they can also be used in ways that threaten human rights. As a result, technology has fast gone up in the ranking of priority issues for those of us assessing and preventing human rights risks and impacts to human rights. 

As a leading organisation on the promotion and protection of human rights globally, ISHR, together with expert civil society actors, such as, Access Now are looking to combine and apply our expertise within the realms of new digital technologies and human rights. In the coming months, we hope to contribute to and build on the groundbreaking work initiated by the B-Tech Project at OHCHR. This will see us addressing these emerging challenges by facilitating a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach to ensure that new technologies become an enabler to human rights, not a fearful risk. 

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