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Digital Dangers: Identifying and Mitigating Threats to Human Rights in the Digital Realm

Digital Dangers: Identifying and Mitigating Threats to Human Rights in the Digital Realm
The Digital Dangers project encourages ICT companies to be open and transparent about the complex dilemmas they face.

What are Digital Dangers?

Digital Dangers are the risks Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies face when, intended or not, they act in ways that lead to negative human rights impacts, sometimes due to their own actions, sometimes complying with government requests or orders.

What is the Digital Dangers Project?

The Digital Dangers project aims to identify and analyse threats to human rights, in particular freedom of expression and privacy, arising from the use of ICTs and to recommend actions companies, civil society and governments can take to protect human rights in the digital realm, which in turn affects human rights in the real world.

The project builds on IHRB’s involvement in the European Commission ICT Sector Guide on Implementing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and identifies a number of areas including security, safety, free assembly, free expression and privacy where ICT companies and other actors would benefit from in-depth human rights analysis and policy oriented recommendations.

The Digital Dangers project encourages ICT companies to be open and transparent about the complex dilemmas they face by sharing their experiences so that realistic and practical recommendations can be made, to spark debate with governments and civil society and bring about positive change. IHRB achieves this by producing in-depth case studies, focusing on a particular challenge from the perspective of one particular ICT company.

The Digital Dangers methodology is unique. Once a specific topic and company is selected as the subject of a Digital Dangers case study, an IHRB researcher is “embedded” into company operations, with permission, for a short period of time to observe dilemmas and complexities first hand. The company which is the subject of the case study is able to review IHRB’s report before publication, but IHRB is solely responsible for the content and conclusions of the case study. IHRB does not accept funding from companies for these case studies; their value lies in their independence and impartiality.

In the summer of 2015, IHRB completed Phase 1 of the Digital Dangers project, which has produced three case studies over the past 18 months. The three challenges addressed were hate speech during elections, the possible misuse of telecommunications systems by governments and mobile network shutdowns:

  1. Corporate Responses to Hate Speech in the 2013 Kenya Presidential Elections. Case Study: Safaricom (2013)
    “It is a valuable documentation of an internal decision that had direct impact on national peace initiatives during an electioneering period, which in Kenya is always a challenging period. It will serve as a good reference point when Safaricom has to make similar difficult decisions in future. We hope this report can guide similar action in other countries facing similar challenges as Kenya during election periods. ICT companies have an important role to play during these transition periods which supersedes business concerns and should not shy away from making these difficult decisions. Stephen Chege, Head of Regulatory and Public Policy, Safaricom
  2. Human Rights Challenges for Telecommunications Vendors: Addressing the Possible Misuse of Telecommunications Systems. Case Study: Ericsson (2014)
    Ericsson was the focus of a 2014 study on human rights by the Institute of Human Rights and Business (IHRB) in their “Digital Dangers” series. The study explored challenges facing network vendors, and how they can reduce the risk of misuse of telecommunications systems, and in particular lawful interception systems. The analysis of Ericsson’s sales compliance process highlighted a number of best practices, including escalation of issues, and requiring end user statements as part of all sales that describe approved uses of the product or service to help track products and performance. The authors also called for governments to clarify rules for companies providing technologies which can be used in ways that undermine respect for human rights and to bear in mind their own duty to protect against human rights abuses involving non-state actors such as companies. Ericsson, Technology for Good, Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Report 2014
  3. Security V Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns. Case Study: Telenor Pakistan (2015)
    As the second largest mobile operator in Pakistan, Telenor Pakistan serves a critical role of providing connectivity and access to information to its more than 30 million customers. IHRB’s report spells out how a large mobile operator must seek to balance its adherence to national laws and regulations with its commitment to internationally recognized human rights principles. We believe that IHRB’s report showcases how Telenor Pakistan has worked systematically through a number of years to limit the impact of network shutdowns on the human rights of Pakistanis. As a result of the report’s new insight on the wider socio-economic implications of such measures, our industry has taken a step forward in its ability to continue our dialogue with governments and civil society at large. Increased transparency from both industry and governments is an important element in the work towards limiting the effects of network shutdowns Katja Nordgaard, Executive Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Telenor Group

These issues were identified during consultation with business and civil society during the research for the European Commission ICT Guide during 2011-12. IHRB decided to focus on issues where there was not yet much research in the public domain. ICT companies talked about these three dilemmas often and they regularly asked to see ‘best practice’ examples of action in order to have some sense of what ‘good’ behaviour looked like and adapt this into their own operations, which led to the Digital Dangers project. These dilemmas have continued to challenge companies year on year.

IHRB would like to thank these companies for agreeing to be subjects of the case studies, and to their teams for assisting with the research and production of the studies.

IHRB’s partners during the first phase of the Digital Dangers project include:

Bytes 4 All, Pakistan

Centre for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR), Berlin

EKN and SEK (Swedish Export Credit System)

Global Centre for Communications Studies (CGCS), Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania

The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB)

The School of Law at the University of Washington, Seattle

The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs


Phase 2 of Digital Dangers will begin with an event hosted by Baker & Mackenzie in Washington DC on Monday 28 September.

A panel of experts will reflect on the Digital Dangers highlighted in the first phase of the project, and lead a discussion on what we can expect the next set of Digital Dangers to be that companies should be focusing on in the coming years.

The Digital Dangers project is part of IHRB’s wider ICT programme. This research has fed into other work undertaken in the ICT Sector:

IHRB has presented the findings and recommendations at various forums. The activities include:

  • Side event the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, Geneva, December 2013
to present key findings from the first case study, Corporate Responses to Hate Speech During the Kenyan Presidential Elections 2013. Case Study: Safaricom.

  • Panel discussion on hate speech at the African Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi in 2014

  • Consultation organised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism in November 2013 for his thematic report on Racism on the Internet, presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2014

  • Presentation of the Safaricom case study to students at the Centre for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at Annenberg School of Communciations, University of Pennsylvania, USA, in November 2013.

  • Two panel discussions at Rights Con, San Francisco in March 2014. The first focused on corporate censorship of content, the second discussed ICTs in the Post-2015 development agenda.

  • Contribution to the drafting process of the outcome document at NETmundial, Sao Paolo, Brazil, in April 2014. 

  • Two panel discussions at the Freedom Online Conference, Estonia, April 2014. The first analysed human rights impact assessments in the ICT sector, the second discussed corporate responses to hate speech.

  • Discussion paper on the No Trade Off case study, prepared for and presented during a panel discussion at the Stockholm Internet Forum, Sweden, May 2014.

  • Convening an Export Credit Agency practitioners’ meeting at the OECD Global Forum, Paris, June 2014, regarding the human rights impacts of the ICT sector. 

  • Presentation at SIDA’s meeting to participate in a day of discussion in Stockholm in November 2014 on the synergies between ICTs and human rights. IHRB’s presentation focused on how human rights defenders and ICT companies can better work together for the benefit of human rights, highlighting the work on network shutdowns in Pakistan.

  • Presentation of initial findings from the Telenor Pakistan case study at Telenor Group’s Sustainability Seminar in London in May 2015.

  • Presentation of findings and recommendations from the case studies on hate speech and network shutdowns to civil society groups in Yangon in June 2015.

  • IHRB convened a meeting for OECD National Contact Points (NCPs) in London in July 2015 on the challenges of the ICT sector and lessons learned from the complaints received by the UK NCP concerning ICT companies.

  • Presentation of the Telenor Pakistan case study to students at the Centre for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, USA, on 30 September 2015.

Our Mission

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) is a global centre of excellence and expertise (a think & do tank) on the relationship between business and internationally recognised human rights standards.

We work to shape policy, advance practice and strengthen accountability to ensure the activities of companies do not contribute to human rights abuses, and in fact lead to positive outcomes.

IHRB prioritizes its work through time-bound programmes.

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