The ICT and electronics industry can contribute to realising several human rights and help achieve the vision laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as highlighted in a selection of projects from Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) member companies. The sector can create positive human rights impacts by offering solutions that, for example, enable remote access to learning, mobile banking and real-time information which can be crucial in emergency situations, including identifying the early onset of drought, enabling the mobilisation of response efforts before a situation reaches a crisis point. Social media platforms have contributed to greater transparency, participation, freedom of expression as well as the development and coordination of democratic movements worldwide. Indeed, the UN has produced a publication highlighting Why are ICTs important for Civil Society Organizations?
Over the last decade, the sector has come under increasing criticism for the production of short lifespan electronic goods with supply chains that are plagued by occupational safety and health concerns and other adverse labour-related impacts, including “an unsustainable cycle of low wages, human rights abuse, use of hazardous materials and ineffective and unsustainable recycling practices”. Moreover, certain applications of digital technologies have been shown to pose serious risks to human rights. For example, the activities of companies such as social media platforms, search engines and internet services providers have been linked to adverse impacts on the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association, non-discrimination and even the right to life. The features of the large-scale use of digital technologies raise unique challenges for the protection and respect of human rights given the far-reaching scope of impacts and the relative lack of transparency in the development of certain technologies such as automated decision-making and artificial intelligence.
The UNGPs provide a strong normative basis to assess human rights impacts in this sector and develop concrete policy actions and measures to close protection gaps, as demonstrated in the Tech Sector and National Action Plans of Business and Human Rights developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and Global Partners Digital.
The rapid evolution of ICT technologies, supported by strong marketing and promotion campaigns linked to business strategies that aim to launch new high-end product every year, results in still fully functional products becoming prematurely obsolete, rapidly disposed of by consumers, and often subjected to informal recycling. New products demand more natural resources, many of which are “conflict minerals” sourced from conflict-affected areas, with revenues often fuelling armed conflict, as highlighted in Frank Poulsen’s documentary “Blood in your mobile”.
The high-tech electronics sector is characterised by a complex, non-transparent global value chain, which often begins in developing countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where raw materials are sourced. These are later processed in other developing countries, such as Malaysia [M. van der Velden, 2017]. The final products are then manufactured in countries like China and Vietnam, and subsequently sold across the globe. Recycling of products is also done in developing countries, such as Ghana or Nigeria (according to ILO, The global impact of e-waste: Addressing the challenge, 2012), 80% of e-waste ends up, often illegally, in developing countries), where unsustainable disposal and recycling of e-waste results in serious environmental, health and social impacts. [M. van der Velden, 2017].
According to the UN Guiding Principles, ICT companies have a responsibility to respect human rights by conducting human rights due diligence to ensure they do not cause, contribute or are linked to potential or actual adverse human rights impacts as articulated in the European Commission’s ICT Sector Guide on Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Other adverse human rights impacts associated to ICT include threats against the right to privacy [e.g. Microsoft case] and freedom of expression, with some states imposing unjustified restrictions on the Internet or social media accounts. In certain extremes, states have been known to enforce network shutdowns during public protests, or track protesters based on their phones geolocations [see e.g. Ch. Williams, How Egypt shut down the Internet, The Telegraph, 28.1.2011]. There is a whole section of the industry linked to autocratic governments by making products that enable “the filtering and blocking of online content” and providing “tools that help governments spy on their citizens” [Human Rights and Technology Sales, p. 2].
Direct or indirect discrimination by algorithms using big data is increasingly considered as one of the most pressing challenges of the use of new technologies. In addition to the problematic use of data in reinforcing bias against groups, low quality data is leading to poor predictions and discrimination. [Privacy International]. Research shows Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms allegedly recreate racial & gender bias, and systems that are used for targeted online advertising often discriminate based on race and gender. [Business and Human Rights Resource Centre].
Coupled with automated decision-making, profiling is being used to make or inform on decisions involving credit scoring, hiring, policing and national security. In 2016, IBM launched a tool that would help governments separate “real asylum seekers” from potential terrorists by assigning each refugee a score that would assess their likelihood to be an imposter. Through profiling, highly sensitive details can be inferred or predicted from seemingly uninteresting data, leading to detailed and comprehensive profiles that may or may not be accurate or fair. [Data is Power: Profiling and Automated Decision-Making in GDPR, pp.3-4].
Governments have also been accused of using malware to spy on journalists and human rights defenders. In 2017, the New York Times reported that some of Mexico’s most prominent human rights defenders, journalists and anti-corruption activists were targeted by spyware created by the Israeli cyber arms dealer, NSO Group. The Pegasus software sold to the Mexican government is capable of infiltrating smartphones to monitor calls, texts, email, contacts and calendars. The use of this spyware has also been reportedly used to advance business interests in Mexico, where vocal proponents of Mexico’s 2014 soda tax were also targeted.
A more recent phenomenon is the use of psychometrics to analyse big data collected through various media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to influence the behaviour of voters and the outcome of elections. For example, the mission of the Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) company is to influence elections by providing marketing based on psychological modelling. In 2013, SCL created a new company, Cambridge Analytica, to influence the Brexit vote and US elections. The misuse of big data to shape the outcome of elections not only has adverse impacts on civil and political rights, but also on a broad range of economic, social and cultural rights, which may be affected by the decisions of elected officials.
To address some of these issues, ICT companies have joined efforts within initiatives like the Global Network Initiative, Responsible Business Alliance and Global e-Sustainability Initiative to develop common approaches, tools and standards and share good practices and lessons. Given the pressure from consumers, NGOs and investors [See e.g. SMART Project that looks into supply chain of mobiles], various initiatives and organizations, e.g. European Association of Electrical and Electronic Waste Take Back Systems (WEEE Forum) or Electronics Watch, now support companies in tackling various aspects of their supply and value chains. KnowTheChain has benchmarked 20 ICT companies on their efforts to eradicate forced labour from their global supply chains.
Governments are also undertaking efforts that aim to improve sustainability and transparency of the ICT and electronics value chains and prevent human rights abuses. Very noticeable is the trend to regulate this sphere, with some of the best known regulatory efforts including the 2010 US Dodd-Frank Act, Section 1502, “which aims to disrupt the trade in conflict minerals from Congo with a law that requires companies publicly listed in US to determine whether their purchases of 3TGs were inadvertently funding armed groups in the DRC” [Ethical Consumer, Conflict Minerals, October 2016], and the Regulation 2017/821 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2017 laying down supply chain due diligence obligations for Union importers of tin, tantalum and tungsten, their ores, and gold originating from conflict-affected and high-risk areas. The Freedom Online Coalition is a partnership of 30 governments working to advance Internet freedom including through coordination of diplomatic efforts and engaging with civil society and the private sector to support Internet freedom – free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online – worldwide.
According to the Addis Ababa Agenda for Action (AAAA), the creation, development and diffusion of new innovations and technologies and associated know-how, including the transfer of technology on mutually agreed terms, are powerful drivers of economic growth and sustainable development (para. 114). Technology thus constitutes one of the major pillars of the Means of Implementation of the 2030 Agenda. SDG 17 contains three Targets ( SDG 17.6, 17.7 and 17.8) outlining a number of key means of developing, transferring and disseminating technology, and technological innovation, as well as enhancing international cooperation on STI for the achievement of the SDGs. ICT specifically is also referred to in additional SDG targets spanning across SDGs 4, 5 and 9 among others.
In order to facilitate the achievement of the SDG Targets that relate to ICT, and more broadly STI, and to ensure its development, use and application where necessary in the achievement of the Agenda as a whole, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the AAAA establish the basis for a “Technology Facilitation Mechanism” (TFM) in order to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (AAAA, para. 123) The TFM facilitates multi-stakeholder collaboration and partnerships through the sharing of information, experiences, best practices and policy advice among Member States, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, United Nations entities and other stakeholders.