Walking the Talk
UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, Day 2:
A Compass for ‘Big Tech'

This is the second of three daily updates from the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights 2022. Day two proposed redefining tech companies as part of infrastructure — similar to railways and supply chains — that govern people’s lives, and a new ‘UNGPs Compass’ aimed at doing that.

The complexity of rapidly evolving technologies deters many users — let alone human rights advocates — from believing that there is even the possibility that standards could be set on which the ‘big tech’ companies could be forced to comply.

As technology was part of the focus on this second day in Geneva, familiar stories arose about authoritarian governments using Western-based technologies to impose censorship or to restrict protest and of tech companies themselves becoming part of a new surveillance culture.

Barriers to ensuring technologies respect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) mirror concerns about the perceived difficulty and questionable desirability of providing any regulation of the internet and of all of its uses.

Technology governance

However, governance applies to technology as to all sectors — with regulation, standard-setting, industry initiatives and public accountability all applying to this sector, too.

Already tech giants including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Nokia, Orange and Vodafone have formed the Global Network Initiative — which has produced principles, guidelines and tools for companies to assess human rights risk in new technologies.

The UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and on Privacy have also made reports which outline norms for the technology sector.

This was taken a step further yesterday on day one, when the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights unveiled a new, draft “UNGPs compass” — which will give authoritative, UN-level guidance on how technology can and must respect the Guiding Principles.

It is necessary to redefine technology companies as part of infrastructure — similar to railways and supply chains — as regulatory mechanisms themselves that govern people’s lives and in a context where there is information asymmetry between companies and citizens, according to Lisa Hsin from Oxford’s Bonavero Institute, who helped draw up the draft guidance. Each of those has an implication for regulation, she said.

Concrete examples

The Forum heard concrete examples of regulation — including Europe’s Digital Services Act, in force from earlier this month, which requires IT platforms to assess risk from the user’s point of view. A current bill in the Brazilian Senate that seeks to address widespread concerns about perpetuation of bias and discrimination in decisions taken by artificial intelligence was also explained.

Already it has been estimated that 85 percent of customer interactions are handled by machines rather than humans, using chatbots and self-service technologies. This is transforming markets and therefore the need for market rules.

However, researcher Clara Keller warned that current legislative initiatives still reflect a principles-based approach — which she argued should be superseded by the rights-based approach, to enable users to be informed about impact on them and to be able to access remedy where their rights have been violated.

The furor around the so-called “Facebook Papers” showed the need for more rigorous protection of whistleblowers, according to Gaya Khandhadai, Head of Technology and Human Rights at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Indeed, it’s ironic when companies that use freedom of expression to defend their actions are all too ready to try to silence those who seek to criticise them.

Positives

The digital revolution has harnessed the huge positive potential to extend distance education opportunities across Africa; to provide closed blockchain models that enable assurance against supply chain violations from illegal fishing to conflict minerals; and the application of big data, which is transforming our capacity to help detect and prevent the causes of climate change and consequent humanitarian disasters.

The lesson from this week’s debate, however, is that digital empowerment must go alongside digital innovation; only by providing systems for individuals to hold providers to account can equality be pursued, not diminished.

The new ‘UNGPs compass’ will be posted online in the next two weeks, with full details for public comment before they are finalised.

Highlights

Other highlights on Day Two included a session on investor responsibilities, in which Domini Impact InvestmentsMary Beth Gallagher argued for the finance sector to directly meet people whose human rights have been affected by the companies in whom they invest.

The annual session on the long-running consultations towards creating a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights was both better attended and more constructive in tone this year. The Head of Business and Human Rights for the German Foreign Office, Wolfgang Bindseil, even announced that his Government is organising a conference next year to support international agreement around access to remedy.

Continuing the whistleblower theme, a session on the role of human rights defenders demonstrated their importance in protecting workers’ and environmental rights and in combating corruption.

However, it was the technology session which most caught the spirit of this week, to bring rights holders to the centre of deliberations. If that can apply to the Cloud, the Internet of Things and the Metaverse, it really can apply anywhere.

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