What the New Telecommunications Human Rights Principles Mean

March 27, 2013
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Vice President, Human Rights, BSR

Dunstan Allison Hope, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Between 2006 and 2008, I was one of two independent facilitators for the negotiation process that launched the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multistakeholder group that works to protect freedom of expression and privacy in information and communications technologies. For another 18 months, I acted as the main secretariat to the GNI before it hired a new executive director.

I look back on this time as one part tremendous success, one part disappointing failure.

It was a tremendous success because a group of key internet companies (i.e. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!) agreed to brand new principles covering freedom of expression and privacy with an impressive group of human rights groups, investors, and academics—an important milestone in the digital age.

But it was a disappointing failure because we were unable to secure the involvement of key telecommunications companies—a big miss given the sheer volume of personal communications taking place using telecommunications services.

Last week a group of eight telecoms companies published their own “Guiding Principles” on human rights, freedom of expression and privacy, and announced their intention to collaborate with (though not join) the GNI for two years. Given how intimately I was involved in the creation of the GNI, people have asked me—are these developments good or bad?

I warmly welcome the new telecoms human rights principles for four reasons:

  1. I’m a big tent guy, and I’d rather have more companies active on these issues than fewer. While they are written to a much lower level of detail, the new principles contain a number of very similar commitments as the GNI—such as reviewing and challenging demands that threaten freedom of expression and privacy—and clearly seek to apply the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by distinguishing between the “state duty to protect” and the “corporate responsibility to respect.”
  2. The proposed collaboration with the GNI represents a significant coming together of key companies and should greatly enhance the long-term sustainability of the GNI. While the telecoms and internet industries are different, ultimately, they form part of an overall information and communications technology ecosystem, and the GNI is made far stronger by bringing them together.
  3. As I wrote elsewhere, the GNI principles failed to recognize some key differences (such as infrastructure and legal frameworks) that differentiate telecoms from internet companies. The new telecoms human rights principles do a good job of rectifying that.
  4. While somewhat lacking in detail, the new telecoms human rights principles contain very important commitments to undertake human rights impact assessments, report externally and annually on progress implementing the principles, and encourage policy making that protects human rights. Their key features are broadly aligned with the GNI’s Principles and Implementation Guidelines.

I find that opinions about industry and multistakeholder coalitions vary greatly according to one’s theory of change. For some, it is better to set a very high bar—as the GNI principles ultimately do—rather than broaden involvement. For others, it is better to ensure widespread uptake—as the telecoms principles seem to aim for—than worry too much about the perfection of the details.

My position all this time has been midway between the two, equally concerned at the lack of stakeholder participation in the telecoms industry effort as I am about the overly prescriptive accountability methods required by the GNI. I believe these new developments offer a real opportunity to improve on both.

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