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Information Is Power, But Who Decides How Much We (or They) Have a Right to Know?

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 Rights. 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 itself.”

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 Rights 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.

Surveillance capitalism

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 capitalism.”

“Tracking is used to infer political opinions, sexuality, even moods — including some protected characteristics. This is a clear breach of the right to privacy,” she said.

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 content overall.

Al Ghussain shared that Amnesty had found online misinformation in local languages to be responsible for violence and deaths in both Myanmar and Ethiopia.

Today’s debate took place against the backdrop of reports overnight that search advertisements from reputable platforms were appearing on pornographic, piratical and foreign-sanctioned websites in Russia and Iran.

Conscious advertising

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” initiative 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 is guaranteed.

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

Other highlights on the final day of the Forum were:

  • In a workshop on how companies assess salience of human-rights risks, organizer Vanessa Zimmerman of 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’ assessments to meet European legislative requirements. 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 suppliers. Daniëlle Essink of investor Robeco said she was shocked at the latest Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, which showed that only 27 percent of 110 companies assessed actually engage with rightsholders.

  • 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 toolkit “Addressing security and human rights challenges in complex environments” as providing practical guidance to companies on how human rights can be protected in these contexts.

  • An open consultation 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 note.

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.

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