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How Tech Companies Can Engage Their Users In Human Rights Issues

When every single user is at risk for having their human rights violated, how is a tech company supposed to respond?

How Tech Companies Can Engage Their Users In Human Rights Issues
[Illustrations: Vira Mylyan-Monastyrska via Shutterstock]

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights directs companies to engage with “rights holders” on human rights issues as part of their due diligence. That sounds straightforward enough, but for tech companies like Google and Facebook that have billions of users, it’s not so simple. Every single user is a rights holder, since their human rights could be at risk simply by using the product (i.e., if a national government requests personal data).

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That’s the quandary discussed in a new paper written by the nonprofit sustainable business network BSR and funded by Microsoft’s Technology and Human Rights Center.


“One of the key points is the importance of engaging with a wide variety of different audiences. In many ways, there aren’t always right or wrong decisions, but there are well-informed and ill-informed decisions,” says Dunstan Allison-Hope, co-author of the paper and managing director of advisory services at BSR.

The paper doesn’t include any case studies since human rights projects are often undertaken in confidence. But BSR does offer up eight principles for engagement with rights holders, including being timely, inclusive to vulnerable groups, focused on relevant rights issues, and committed to safety of participants. Companies also need to make sure that they include relevant intermediary stakeholders in their human rights discussions–that is, local community members who can best represent their community’s needs.


One of the biggest challenges for tech companies, says Allison-Hope, is in disclosing the results of their human rights due diligence (one of the UN”s Guiding Principles). “Some of this is just newness. There’s an element of caution there as a result. Some of it is commercial confidentiality. You often undertake human rights assessments prior to major business decisions. Another reason is wanting to keep certain discussions behind the scenes to maintain leverage,” he says.

Allison-Hope believes that human rights issues can only be undertaken successfully when human rights groups and tech companies come together. ” “It’s about making sure the right people are at the table,” adds Allison-Hope. “It’s easy to restrict discussions to people in policy and legal. In the tech industry, there are also engineering and product issues, so it’s about bringing engineers, technicians, and product people to the table.”

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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