Great news today as the Commission starts the process of providing human rights guidance to the ICT sector – kicking off a process to make it easier for makers and users of ICT products and services to know the impact their technology has on Human Rights across the world.
When you look at events like the Arab Spring, you see that sometimes technology plays a positive role in the democratisation process – allowing activists to coordinate peaceful protests. But sometimes, it is less benign – as when despotic governments use ICT as a tool for surveillance or repression.
The ICT tools that are used in such non-democratic countries (for both purposes) are sometimes provided by western companies. Many activists are out there promoting its pro-democratic use, and I encourage that. But on the other side, public and private actors cannot ignore their responsibilities. If western technology is being used by repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, then I think we – manufacturers, suppliers, citizens, and democratic governments—ought to know.
Back in December, I spoke at the Freedom Online Conference in The Hague the wake-up call of the Arab Spring – how it showed the universal desire for democracy, and how it showed the role that technology plays. I said we needed to cooperate better, working with the private sector, to make technology work for democratisation.
I am clear that any action taken needs to have strong industry involvement. This reflects the strong industry interest in getting this right – given that being found to provide the tools of repression is (even leaving aside any moral issues) extremely bad corporate PR. “Human rights due diligence” implies an obligation on companies to check on their processes and relationships – and to remedy accordingly, where there are negative human rights impacts.
Of course, this initiative also needs to work consistently with positive processes already out there like the Global Network Initiative. And to work within the framework of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the Commission’s own wider work on corporate social responsibility.
Within that framework, I am glad that the European Commission, too, is able to assist with expertise and support. I hope that the guidance we are able to produce as a result is practical, consistent, and beneficial to the global struggle for democracy and human rights.
You can read more about this initiative (and parallel processes for two other sectors—oil and gas, and employment recruitment agencies), here.