Published 2 months ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Among themes addressed on day 3 of this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human
Rights: When do tracking of personal data and combating disinformation reach a
level which breaches freedom of expression or thought?
Read the recap of day one and day two.
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Many issues repeat themselves year after year at the UN’s annual Forum on
Business and Human
But today’s final day of the 2023 Forum shone a spotlight for the first time on
how corporate advertising can impinge on human rights.
The fact that advertising can have a profound effect on human consciousness is
illustrated by our indelible memory of some of the most poignant advertising
slogans, together with the maxim of the father of advertising, David
Ogilvy: “A good
advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to
False or misleading advertising has long been regulated by national
jurisdictions; but when does this reach a level which breaches freedom of
expression or thought?
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
makes quite clear that freedom of expression involves the right to receive as
well as to impart information. However, the principal part of today’s debate
concerned the multiplication of these challenges in the digital media age.
Tracking personal data across the internet, and through mobile phones and
physical location to enable targeted advertising was said to be at the heart of
the business model of today’s online platforms.
Alia Al Ghussain,
researcher in artificial intelligence (AI) for Amnesty
International, told the Forum that this is creating a “surveillance
“Tracking is used to infer political opinions, sexuality, even moods — including
some protected characteristics. This is a clear breach of the right to privacy,”
Google was praised for engaging in this debate — for example, in
introducing watermarking to
ensure images created on YouTube by AI are properly signposted as such.
However, despite committing to combating climate disinformation, the company was
said by the Global Disinformation Index
to be still responsible for promoting climate denial.
The problem for all platforms is that extreme or hateful messages lead people to
staying online longer, which creates perverse incentives by having a direct
correlation to advertising revenues.
A similarly widespread challenge is that 87 percent of content moderation is
undertaken in English only, despite this representing only 9 percent of online
Al Ghussain shared that Amnesty had found online misinformation in local
languages to be responsible for violence and deaths in both Myanmar and
Today’s debate took place against the backdrop of
overnight that search advertisements from reputable platforms were appearing on
pornographic, piratical and foreign-sanctioned websites in Russia and
Speaking for the industry, Gerry
D’Angelo, longtime VP at Procter &
Gamble and now Ambassador for the Conscious Advertising
Network, turned conventional arguments
about corporate transparency on their head by arguing for the urgent need for
companies to be able to know where their advertisements are appearing.
However, his suggestion that “one person’s misinformation is another person’s
censorship” was countered by Amir
Malik of Accenture
Interactive — who said the “deplatforming” of those responsible for hate
speech or violence required in the United Kingdom is entirely legitimate.
“Would Joseph Goebbels have
been given a Twitter account?” he asked.
The session heard a case example from Chris
Hajecki, Director of
Internews, about how its “Back to News”
has identified and vetted 10,000 trusted local news websites in more than 50
countries to enable advertisers to put their money where journalistic standards
are respected, plurality is maintained and freedom from discrimination or hatred
D’Angelo and Al Ghussain agreed that commercial and human-rights imperatives
must go together.
Advertising is the difference between profit and loss for many companies. The
quest has to be how the concept of “conscious advertising” can be upheld to end
any link to harmful content.
It was clear that this will involve much more than simply employing slogans.
Other highlights on the final day of the Forum were:
In a workshop on how companies assess salience of human-rights
Pillar Two asked companies to use the strict
definition of salience — defining how this represents both severity of risk
to people and likelihood of occurrence. This will be particularly important
as businesses undertake new ‘double materiality’
to meet European legislative
Tony Khaw of
semi-conductor manufacturer NXP emphasized that assessment is a
continuous process and needs direct engagement with stakeholders. He gave
the example of his company determining salient human-rights risks, partly
through direct dialogue with migrant workers in the company’s factories and
investor Robeco said she was shocked at the latest Corporate Human
which showed that only 27 percent of 110 companies assessed actually engage
A “human rights in challenging contexts” workshop, particularly referencing
countries in conflict, was understandably very well-attended. The
representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, also in
the headlines, commented that they are “fundamentally biased towards
companies responsibly remaining in conflict-affected areas” rather than
exit. The workshop referenced the ICRC/DCAF
security and human rights challenges in complex environments” as providing
practical guidance to companies on how human rights can be protected in
took place at today’s Forum, as the UN Working Group prepares a report
for June next year on how to align Environmental, Social and Governance
(ESG) approaches in the financial sector with the UN Guiding Principles.
Speakers called on investors to themselves use a rightsholder lens in
undertaking ESG assessments, to be prepared to directly consult with
stakeholders and to ensure effective remedy for human-rights abuses in their
portfolios. Anita Dorett from
the Investor Alliance for Human
Rights described the “deep level of
analytical thought” being applied to the work. If investor analyst skills
and competencies are applied to corporate human-rights due diligence, this
will indeed be a positive step forward.
There is always a fair smattering of lawyers at the Forum, perfectly
explicable by the wish for companies to respect international human-rights
law. This made it unsurprising that there was a warm welcome for a new
publication launched at the Forum from Australia that analyses the impact on
corporate behavior of strategic litigation. Corporate legal counsel, please
Whether you were present in Geneva, following online or keeping in touch
through this Sustainable Brands®
blog, this year’s Forum showed
that human rights challenges are constantly evolving — but so is business’
capacity to meet them.
Published Nov 29, 2023 2pm EST / 11am PST / 7pm GMT / 8pm CET
Richard Howitt is a strategic adviser on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Business and Human Rights. He is also a Board member, lecturer at Audencia Business School and host of the Frank Bold ‘Frankly Speaking’ responsible business podcast. Richard was Member of the European Parliament responsible for the EU’s first rules on corporate sustainability reporting and subsequently Chief Executive Officer of the International Integrated Reporting Council.