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. The second day offered to redefine tech companies as part of infrastructure – similar to railroads and supply chains – which governs people’s lives, and a new ‘UNGPs Compass’ aimed at doing just that.

The complexity of rapidly changing technologies dissuades many users – not to mention human rights defenders – from believing that there is even the possibility that standards will be set to which “big tech companies” might be forced to conform. .

As technology was at the center of the concerns of this second day of
Genevafamiliar stories have emerged of authoritarian governments using Western technologies to impose censorship or to curb protests and of tech companies themselves being part of a new culture of surveillance.

Obstacles to ensuring that technologies meet UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
(UNGP) reflect concerns about the perceived difficulty and questionable desirability of providing regulation of the internet and all of its uses.

Technology governance

However, governance applies to technology as it does to all sectors – with regulation, standard setting, industry initiatives and public accountability applying to this sector as well.

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

The UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of opinion and expression
and on Privacy have also written reports outlining technology industry standards.

It was taken a little further yesterday, the first day, when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights unveiled a new project »UNGP compass– which will provide authoritative guidance at the UN level on how technology can and should comply with the Guiding Principles.

There is a need to redefine tech companies as part of infrastructure – like railroads and supply chains – as regulatory mechanisms themselves that govern people’s lives and in a context where there is an asymmetry of information between companies and citizens, according to Lisa Hsin of Oxfordit is
Bonavero Institute, who participated in the development of the orientation project. Each of these has an implication for regulation, she said.

Concrete examples

The Forum heard concrete examples of regulation — including Europeit is
Digital Services Act, in force since the beginning of the month, which obliges IT platforms to assess the risks from the user’s point of view. A current bill in the Brazilian Senate which seeks to address widespread concerns about the perpetuation of bias and discrimination in decisions made by artificial intelligence was also explained.

It has already been estimated that 85% of customer interactions are handled by machines rather than humans, using chatbots and self-service technologies. This transforms the markets and therefore the need for market rules.

However, the researcher Clara Keller warned that current legislative initiatives still reflect a principles-based approach – which she said should be replaced by the rights-based approach, to enable users to be informed of the impact on them and to have access to remedies when their rights have been violated.

The fury around the so-called “Facebook Papersshowed the need for more rigorous protection of whistleblowers, according to
Gaya Khandhaihead of technology and human rights at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center. Indeed, it is ironic that companies that use free speech to defend their actions are all too willing to try to silence those who seek to criticize them.

Good points

The digital revolution has harnessed the huge positive potential of expanding distance learning opportunities through Africa; provide closed blockchain models that insure against supply chain breaches, from illegal fishing to conflict minerals; and the application of big data, which is transforming our ability to help detect and prevent the causes of climate change and the resulting humanitarian disasters.

The lesson to be learned from this week’s debate, however, is that digital empowerment must go hand in hand with digital innovation; it is only by providing systems for individuals to hold providers accountable that equality can be furthered, not diminished.

The new ‘UNGP Compass’ will be posted online within the next two weeks, with full details for public comment before they are finalized.

Strong points

Other highlights of day two included a session on investor responsibilities, during which Domini Impact InvestmentsMary Beth Gallagher advocated for the financial industry to meet directly with people whose human rights have been affected by the companies in which they invest.

The annual session on long-term consultations for the creation of a
Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights was both busier and more constructive this year. The Head of Business and Human Rights for the
German Foreign Office, Wolfgang Bindsileven announced that his government would organize a conference next year to support an international agreement around access to remedies.

Continuing with the theme of the whistleblower, a session on the role of human rights defenders demonstrated their importance in protecting labor and environmental rights and in the fight against corruption.

However, it was the tech session that struck the spirit the most this week, to bring rightsholders to the center of the deliberations. If it can apply to Cloudthe internet of things and the
Metaverseit really can apply anywhere.

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