Information & Communication Technology

ICT and human rights: A roundup of 2012 and challenges for 2013

Commentary, 22 January 2013

By Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer, Privacy International; Research Fellow, IHRB

European Commission Human Rights Sector Guidance Project: Developing Guidance on the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights in the Employment & Recruitment Agencies, Information & Communications Technology, and Oil & Gas Sectors.

by Lucy Purdon, IHRB Programme Support Manager: ICT

Freedom of expression and privacy, two rights intertwined with the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, were very much in the spotlight in 2012. Balancing the two is not easy, and companies in the sector continue to face many difficult choices.

In the case of freedom of expression and privacy, enabling realisation of one right may infringe the other. Putting in place policies consistent with the corporate responsibility to respect human rights remains a significant challenge for ICT companies of all sizes.

To help companies think through such challenges, IHRB developed a set of guidelines with Shift for the European Commission to assist companies in three sectors implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including the ICT sector. These guidance documents intend to assist companies ‘know and show’ they respect human rights by applying the Guiding Principles in the context of sector-specific challenges. In late 2012, IHRB and Shift released drafts of all three guidance documents, which are open for public consultation until February.

Drafting these guidelines produced a significant body of research covering different challenges for different parts of the ICT sector. As a new year begins, it is useful to look back on a number of ICT related events of 2012, identify themes and challenges to freedom of expression and privacy from IHRB’s ongoing research and reflect on what could make a difference in 2013.

Internet Governance and Legislation

If 2011 was the year in which the revolutionary potential of ICTs became clear during the Arab Spring, 2012 dealt with the consequences. Some governments sought to tighten their grip on communications to ensure their hold on power, starting with changes to the way the Internet is governed. Proposals tabled for discussion in the run up to the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December were seen by many online freedom advocates as steps towards reduced freedom on the Internet. It was feared that International Telecommunication Union (ITU) members would attempt to bring the Internet (traditionally governed by multi-stakeholder bodies) under State control during a review of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). After two weeks of complex negotiations, the resulting treaty failed to achieve consensus as some members found the implications of the proposals on Internet freedom to be unacceptable.

Proposed US legislation SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) collapsed after netizens took to their keyboards to oppose measures seen as heavy handedly restricting Internet freedom in the name of combatting piracy. Websites, such as Wikipedia and Wordpress initiated a ‘blackout’ protest, making the websites inaccessible for 24 hours in the run up to the Senate vote. A few months later, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which drew parallels with SOPA and PIPA, went the same way in Europe and was rejected in a vote by the members of the European Parliament. This and the collapse of the proposed ITU treaty should serve as a warning of the level of opposition to legislation designed to control the online space.

Blocking content

Copyright holders and rights activists continued to clash throughout 2012, with ICT companies often caught in the middle. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and content providers were accused of ‘over-blocking’ content (that is, blocking more content than strictly or legally necessary) in order to avoid commercial liability, which extended beyond copyrighted content. The willingness of some companies to block content without checks and balances had a detrimental effect on freedom of expression as whole domains were made inaccessible in response to spurious and often politically motivated takedown requests, without proper notification to users or appeal mechanisms. The efforts to highlight these issues has led to increased public debate, including an appeal for clarity of what is meant by ‘illegal’ content in different territories.

A growing number of companies took steps to be more transparent about the government requests for content removal they receive, how they address such requests and communicate decisions to users. This is a major concern in many parts of the world, where companies face increasingly complicated choices regarding keeping content online, or removing it, with neither the skills, nor capacity, and often limited expertise and authority, to make such decisions.

Concerns over content blocking and filtering extended beyond individual company practice to cases in which companies assisted censorship at national level. For example, in March, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) publicly tendered for a mass web filtering system which would enable the government to censor any information it deemed offensive, illegal or it simply didn’t want its citizens to see. A collective of civil society organisations sprang into action and appealed for companies to reject the proposal. Many companies released public statements declaring their intentions not to offer their services in response to the tender and the PTA seemed to quietly drop the plans.

It is encouraging to see companies engaging with stakeholders and making public their opposition to tenders that would result in censorship. However, the silence of Chinese companies involved concerned Pakistani and other activists.


Surveillance and privacy concerns dominated 2012. Telecommunications companies were accused of facilitating Cold War-style surveillance of communications, which highlighted the continuing conflict between respecting international human rights standards and abiding by the national law of an operating territory, a dilemma expected to continue into 2013.

Software originally intended to improve the flow of data, such as deep packet inspection, is now being used to impose surveillance and oppress citizens leading to debates in Europe about the regulation of technology considered ‘dual use’ and proposals to ban technology exports to Syria. IHRB identified tackling the challenges of dual-use technology that may undermine freedom of expression and privacy in our Top Ten list of Business and Human Rights issues for 2013.

Privacy and Security
Surveillance and privacy concerns dominated 2012.

Increasingly tech-savvy users raised questions about how companies collect and store our personal information and more importantly, how they protect it.

Even as Facebook floated its stock for $104 billion and celebrated its billionth user in October, the company was dogged throughout 2012 by questions over user privacy and appeals to be more open with users about what it actually does with user information.

In June, LinkedIn confirmed more than 6 million user passwords had been compromised. Technology journalist Matt Honan detailed how his digital life slowly disappeared due to the actions of a hacker, exposing flaws in Apple and Amazon security. Even our e-reading habits seemed to be tracked and monitored.

All this builds up a picture of an increased erosion of trust between company and user, bad news for companies whose business model relies on people to communicate using their service and share personal details.

Some companies took steps to maintain this trust (and thereby a competitive advantage) by increasing the communication between company and user, especially when things went wrong (See Google, Twitter). We hope to see more companies being open about company practice in 2013.

Network Disconnection

The conflict in Syria continued throughout 2012 and in November, Renesys, which provides analysis of worldwide network connectivity, reported that Internet access across Syria had been cut and asked the question, could this happen in your country? The threat of network disconnection and the role of private companies which first captured global attention in Egypt’s revolution in 2011 (the scale of which was considered at the time to be a one-off event) is an issue IHRB will continue to research into 2013 on a local and national level, focusing on specific situations which pose a threat to human rights, such as the issue of network disconnection and suspension of services around elections.

Looking Ahead

As connectivity increases, so do the challenges to human rights. The examples outlined here show some of the issues that have emerged in just the past year. We look forward to receiving comments on the draft European Commission ICT guidelines over the coming weeks that will help make the final product - to be released in April 2013 – an important contribution to addressing challenges facing the sector.

The ICT sector brings huge social and economic benefits. The industry continues to innovate and develop at speed. It is encouraging that parts of the ICT sector are demonstrating increased willingness to work towards positive change and respect for human rights, bolstered by help, advice and sustained pressure from energetic civil society organisations and other stakeholders. Let’s hope to see even more progress in 2013.

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