Like many people, I’ve been watching the scenes of democratic protests in Egypt unfold with a mixture of awe and fascination, fear and hope. I’ve also been reflecting on the implications of these events for the relationship between business and human rights.

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing a BSR report on protecting human rights in the age of global digital communications, and so the near-complete shutdown of modern communications in Egypt, and the role of private companies in that shutdown, has been a source of particular interest to me—especially the complex ethics of providing telecommunications services in countries with poor human rights records.

 

On the one hand, telecommunications services provide huge opportunities for increased freedom of expression and can play a significant role in opening up closed societies. On the other hand, telecoms companies everywhere come under significant pressure to collaborate with law enforcement activities, such as enabling real-time surveillance or assisting in the pursuit of criminals.

Most of the time that’s not a big problem: There are plenty of legitimate reasons why law enforcement agencies and companies may restrict the free flow of information (such as removing images of child exploitation) or allow access to personal information (such as tackling violent crime).

But there are times when it can become a big problem. Just ask Vodafone, who issued the following statement late last week: “All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it.” Over the weekend, Vodafone was able to restore its services, and explained its previous actions by stating that “there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.”

So what are the ethics of Vodafone’s circumstances in Egypt?

A key finding in the BSR report will be the different ethical circumstances faced by internet companies—say a Twitter or a Facebook—and telecommunications companies—in this case Vodafone—when it comes to providing services in countries with poor human rights records. Internet companies can often target services at a country (in the local language, for example) while locating key assets such as servers, user data, and personal information in lower-risk countries. This flexible approach allows an internet company to argue that their information and equipment falls under the domain of a different jurisdiction. The ethics in this scenario are fairly simple: If the service is blocked or taken down, it’s not their doing.

However, the reverse is true for telecommunications companies. In order to offer services in a specific country, a telecoms company will need to do two things: sign a license with the local government and build an extensive, multi-billion dollar telecoms network that is physically located in that country. This puts the telecoms company in a triple-bind: The company has little or no say on the terms of the license, and with a local physical network in place, it is clearly under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies. In addition, the company has thousands of employees in the country, so its room for maneuver is greatly restricted by the need to protect the safety of its local employees.

So what to do? For me, a key reference point is the Principles and Implementation Guidelines of the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative designed to protect freedom of expression and privacy online. These documents suggest three responsible courses of action for telecoms companies entering markets with poor human rights records:

  • First, undertake human rights due diligence before entering a market. The decision to invest billions of dollars and enter a new country is a significant business decision and telecoms companies will already undertake substantial due diligence on the risks involved. However, it is important to integrate human rights into this due diligence, even though this can raise its own ethical complexities. Who is to say, for example, whether the beneficial impacts of freedom of expression over many years outweigh the risks that services will be suspended during times of local unrest?
  • Second, push back on government demands that restrict freedom of expression. What goes on behind the scenes between a government and a telecoms company is the subject of much speculation, but from an ethics perspective there is surely an onus on telecoms companies to do what they can to push back when the demands made of them conflict with international human rights standards and the rule of law.
  • Third, identify ways to minimize the extent of compliance. Companies can investigate means to reduce the extent of compliance, such as providing services in some areas or reducing the range of information blocked.

So has Vodafone done the right thing? I’m an optimist on the role of communications technology in enabling human rights, especially freedom of expression, and so I have no difficulty whatsoever with Vodafone’s presence in Egypt in the first place. But were they right in suspending their services? For me, it’s too early to tell because we only have a blurry picture of the events that led to the shutdown of services.

Did Vodafone attempt to push back? We don’t know yet what dialogue took place, and we probably won’t for some time. Did Vodafone push the boundaries of compliance with the demand to suspend services? We don’t yet know. We also don’t really know what actions the Egyptian government could have taken—such as closing Vodafone’s network altogether—had Vodafone pushed things further. Vodafone’s account of these events, should it become available, will surely make for fascinating reading.