Information & Communication Technology

Digital Dangers - Corporate Responses to Hate Speech

05 November 2013


In the first in a series of case studies as part of its “Digital Dangers” project, the Institute examines how ICT companies understand and act on their responsibilities to prevent human rights abuses linked to the use of digital technology.

The case study focuses on the efforts of Safaricom, Kenya's largest mobile network operator, which devised its own code of conduct to prevent spreading hate-filled messages through its bulk SMS service.

The disputed 2007 Presidential election in Kenya resulted in an outbreak of post-election violence that left over 1,000 people dead and over 600,000 people displaced. Enquiries into the violence acknowledged the role of SMS messages and blogs in exploiting tensions between ethnic communities and inciting violence.

In the run up to the 2013 elections, concerns of another outbreak of violence and fears over the potential of SMS to simultaneously send messages that incite violence led Safaricom to take action. To understand how the company sought to implement its corporate responsibility to respect human rights, IHRB researcher Lucy Purdon spent 7 days at Safaricom headquarters in Nairobi during the 2013 elections. The findings, prepared in consultation with key stakeholders in Kenya and elsewhere, show that:

  • The rapid development of the ICT sector highlights the need for companies to understand the responsibilities associated with respecting freedom of expression around user-generated content as this may be central to their business model in the near future.

  • The emphasis on criminalising many forms of speech not only creates a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression, but also results in the public expectation that many people will be prosecuted. This puts pressure on both the government and companies to act, which may result in legitimate views being restricted and citizens being unduly arrested. It also distracts from efforts to tackle the root cause of such speech.

  • The 2013 Kenyan elections were largely peaceful. But this does not mean that hate speech disappeared. Although the language used in campaigns by politicians, political parties and aspirants were scrutinised through various new laws and initiatives, hate speech did not disappear from public rhetoric. Instead, the method of disseminating such messages seems to have shifted. Hate speech appears to have largely left SMS and found a new home on the web, in social media.

IHRB gratefully acknowledges Safaricom's participation in the research project. Safaricom did not make any contribution, financial or otherwise, towards the research and production of the report.

On November 7 2014, Lucy Purdon presented key findings and recommendations from her experience researching Safaricom’s activities at a lunchtime talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Centre for Global Communications Studies:

On November 11 and 12, 2013, Lucy contributed to an expert consultation convened in New York by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to discuss issues of racism on the internet. The findings from this consultation informed the Special Rapporteur's 2014 thematic report to the Human Rights Council on the topic.

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