Dunstan Allison-Hope, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR
Over the past several years, we have seen a steady rise in the number of companies issuing so-called “law-enforcement reports.” Starting with Google, these reports soon became commonplace among internet companies (see similar reports by Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Facebook), and most recently have spread to telecoms companies AT&T, Verizon, and Vodafone.
These reports are designed to demystify the relationship between company and law-enforcement agencies, and illustrate how the company balances two competing pressures: the need to protect users from potential human rights violations by governments, while working with governments to ensure that laws (which are often designed to protect human rights) are justly enforced.
This trend is impressive for its voluntary nature. There are no legal requirements to disclose this information, and companies are now pushing governments to allow them to publish more detailed data.
But with all the media attention swirling around Edward Snowden and his leaks, it is easy to forget that the basic issue at stake will affect more than just the internet and telecoms companies: Any company that engages with law-enforcement agencies should consider how to report on these activities, which can help illustrate the company’s approach to respecting human rights.
Consider a few industries:
- Transportation and logistics companies work with law enforcement on a range of issues, such as human trafficking, smuggling, counter-terrorism, and undocumented immigration.
- Financial services companies work with law enforcement to prevent money laundering, fraud, and the illicit funding of terrorists.
- In the age of Big Data, retailers, healthcare companies, automotive makers, travel and tourism companies, and more can expect all sorts of requests from law enforcement to assist with their investigations, such as transaction history, real-time locations, and health records.
According to the framework provided by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, governments have a duty to protect human rights, while companies have a responsibility to respect them. In this context, how government and business work together on human rights takes on a much heightened significance.
But while voluntary reporting on a whole range of social, environmental, and economic impact issues has grown extensively over the past two decades, the recent flurry of disclosures from internet and telecoms companies reveals, rather starkly, that law-enforcement relationships have been overlooked.
That’s quite the blind spot. And so while society now has a greatly enhanced understanding of law enforcement relationships in the internet and telecoms industries, the same is generally not true for many other industries.
My proposed stating point? Create a section on law-enforcement relationships for your next sustainability report, and figure out what to put in it.