What can big tech companies do to help protect human rights?

Kari Käsper, the director of the Estonian Human Rights Centre, has been advising GeSI, a group of technology giants, since 2014. During their annual general assembly held in Madrid, he addressed future challenges companies face in the domain of human rights.

Said challenges are diverse, ranging from issues with the supply chain (such as using child labour or the subject of conflict minerals) to questions of privacy and freedom of speech (where the increasing government intervention can limit human rights). We also can’t forget the positive aspects of the progress of info- and communications technology that has helped to improve human rights and save human lives.

EHRC has contributed to the work of GeSI since 2014.

Companies often find themselves between a rock and a hard place – on one hand, they have to follow governmental requirements, on the other hand there’s an increased demand, including from the companies themselves, to respect human rights. So what do you in a situation where a government employee demands shutting down the internet or mobile service to silence their opposition? What happens if your subcontractors can’t guarantee that the human rights of their employees will be respected? How do you react to government demands to access the information stored by telecommunication companies?

Technology itself is neutral  – everything depends on how it’s used. At the same time, technology companies mustn’t shirk their responisbilities . More often than not, it’s in their power to decide if and whom to cooperate with and under which conditions. It’s important that companies and the civil society work together on this issue.

During the public part of the meeting, hosted by the telecom giant Telefónica in their historic headquarters on the Gran Via of Madrid, the participants also discussed the technology companies’ contributions to achieving the goals of the UN sustainable development initiative, and heard presentations on the subject by Joan Krajewski (Microsoft) and Luis Neves (Deutsche Telekom).

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