This workshop, A Plan for Rights-Respecting Telecoms, facilitated a multistakeholder dialogue aiming to address the difficulties with, and potential solutions for, creating a framework for rights-respecting telecommunications companies. By connecting people worldwide and disseminating an unprecedented amount of information, telecommunications companies have become a critical gateway to the right to freedoms of expression, association, and privacy. However, in the course of their operations, they have access to detailed personal information on users which, if abused, can lead to serious human rights violations. Recent examples include the sale of surveillance technologies to rights-abusing regimes and the cooperation of telecoms operating under these regimes with privacy-invading requests for user information to quell dissident voices. Resolving the tension between the opportunities for telecoms to advance human rights, and the dangers for telecoms to be complicit in their violation, requires the participation of a wide range of actors, from civil society members and national governments to global bodies and the telecoms themselves.
Moderated by Brett Solomon, Executive Director of digital rights organization Access, this workshop brought together journalists, lawyers, civil society representatives, representatives of telecoms, and policy makers from the national and global level.
Vivek Krishnamurthy, a lawyer with Foley Hoag’s Corporate Social Responsibility Practice, said telecoms were important enablers for the freedom of expression internationally by providing individuals with the practical means to express themselves. While the model of freedom of expression came from the public square, Mr. Krishnamurthy stated, the public square is increasingly becoming the digital square. Thus more and more, freedom of expression happens practically via circuits provided by telecommunications companies. This places telecoms at the center of freedom of expression and freedom of association, which are core political and civil rights. He encouraged better transparency on the part of telecoms and governments as a way of protecting these rights, and stated that independent third-party auditors were needed to confirm this transparency.
Veridiana Alimonti, a lawyer with the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense (known more commonly by its Portuguese acronym, IDEC), emphasized the fact that telecommunication providers deal with the internet and the services they provide as businesses aiming to profit, and that it is therefore important to have a multistakeholder approach to deal with these issues. Regulatory authorities could serve as a space where companies and consumers meet in a collaborative way, so long as these authorities allowed social participation. She also encouraged transparency.
Patrik Hiselius, the Senior Adviser on Digital Rights for TeliaSonera, noted that the issues are complex and evolving. Human rights are now at the top of the agenda at the IGF, which was not the case just a few years ago. Telecom providers, he argued, not only have an obligation to implement the Ruggie Framework but also need to respect human rights due to competitive pressures. Telecoms need customers to trust them with their data, and additionally cannot do business when networks are blocked or shut down by regimes. At the same time, he insisted that telecoms have an obligation to follow local law and requirements, regardless of what they are, and that they can be circumvented by governments which own and access the spectrum which the telecoms are leasing. It is the duty of the state to determine the balance between human rights and security. Mr. Hiselius advocated for multistakeholder dialogue and cooperation within the industry as a means of respecting human rights by lobbying against bad regulations and licensing requirements.
David Sullivan, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative, raised the notion of leverage. In many of the cases involving telecoms, it is the governments that are violating human rights and compelling companies to be involved. Mr. Sullivan suggested that a multistakeholder approach helps companies gain leverage over rights-abusing regimes. He also emphasized disclosure, commenting that Transparency Reports from companies like Google help, but that governments could also play a role in demanding transparency from telecoms. Governments also have an obligation to be transparent about their own activities.
Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, the Head of the Stakeholders Unit at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology, described the work which global and international bodies did, such as the work of the European Union to promote human rights, and help European businesses remain competitive with non-European companies who might not subscribe to the Ruggie Framework. Her work addresses this challenge by applying a multistakeholder approach to designing and implementing a framework for corporate social responsibility. This action aims to put in place a concrete guide for the ICT sector.
Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist working in Azerbaijan who wrote Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report for Azerbaijan, commented on how the regulations in the country make it very difficult for companies to respect human rights. For example, no court orders are needed to conduct investigations. Security forces use communications records during interrogations. Records are even being faked to serve as evidence or blackmail. Telecoms do not show sufficient initiative in challenging government requests or in helping the victims of rights-abuses, either because they “don’t have the guts to” or, if they are directly or indirectly owned by the regime, they lack the desire to.
Johan Hallenborg, Human Rights Advisor for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented on the tension between national laws and international obligations and standards. In his capacity as a human rights advisor, he works through three channels. 1) Policy work through the UN, EU, council of Europe and others; 2) Practical help for people who are in danger, at risk in repressive regimes; and 3) By working actively work with companies on corporate responsibilities. He pointed out that the application of the Ruggie Framework has just begun, and that there may be situations where local law clearly contravenes international human rights law, and it is difficult to give clear-cut answers. Work needs to be done in situations where there is a deficiency in rule of law, and other countries can find ways to help. He argued that additional work on transparency needed to be done by telecoms, who may be able to increase their transparency on these issues.
The issue of telecoms responsibility to remedy human rights abuses they are involved in was raised, but not addressed in depth.
A member of the audience from the Council of Europe asked about the types of tools and processes which TeliaSonera is making available for users while implementing the Ruggie Framework. She mentioned that the Council of Europe is working on a compendium on rights of internet users, so they can better understand what their rights are, and what remedies they have access to when these rights are abused. Panelists emphasized the importance of transparency across the board, which lead to the next audience member to ask about the practical measures to enable transparency. Mr. Krishnamurthy offered by way of an example simpler user license agreements and contracts, so that users would better understand what information they were giving up.
The Communications Director of Azerbaijan’s telecom, Azercell, was a member of the audience, and commented on the complexities of court orders to access for information. This sparked an interesting and fruitful dialogue involving the Azercell representative, Ms. Ismayilova, Mr. Hiselius of TeliaSonera (which owns a 51% stake in Azercell), and Mr. Hallenborg from the Swedish MFA (whose governments owns a 38% stake in TeliaSonera). This conversation highlighted the complex relationship between telecoms, their users, and governments particularly in emerging markets and authoritarian countries while also raising the issue of these respective entities obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Another audience member from Nokia Siemens clarified the record of his company, asserting that Nokia had improved its human rights impacts and had implemented strong due diligence policies. An Iranian commentator stated that companies involved in rights abuses should be punished for helping oppressive regimes, even after they’ve ceased the partnerships but the regimes are still benefiting from the technology sold to them by telecoms.