Last week, BSR hosted a meeting for information and communications technology (ICT) companies in our Paris office to discuss the current state of human rights in the industry. Companies from the telecommunications, software, semiconductor, and industrial equipment sectors, among others, attended. It was fascinating to hear diverse companies from across the whole ICT value chain come together to discuss similar issues that they are facing related to human rights.

The basic approaches to managing human rights impacts were aligned: All companies at the table were grappling with issues related to employees, supply chains, and product impacts. Many companies had made recent strides developing policies, raising internal awareness, and setting metrics to track progress.

Yet the participants also acknowledged growing human rights challenges, including their struggle to understand and influence the realization of human rights at the margins. For example:

  • Expectations for supply chain responsibility are increasing upstream (at the point of raw materials extraction) and downstream (in the disposal of electronic waste). The challenge of visibility and influence at the “end links” of supply chains is significant and a key focus area for BSR.
  • Respect for human rights is often a core corporate value, and in many cases it is company policy, but the context and priorities vary by geography and business line, making it a challenge to implement throughout a company’s operations. Companies are also struggling with how to apply their policies to joint ventures, channel partners, and others with whom they do business.
  • Impacts that result from customer end use of ICT products are very important to the realization of human rights. Impacts can be good (such as access to education and healthcare, privacy protection, or increased opportunities for free expression), but they can also be bad (such as ICT products being used for privacy-invasive purposes or for surveillance by governments). All the companies agree a stronger orientation toward opportunities could gain greater buy in and internal support.

All attendees agreed that more discussion and debate are needed to understand these emerging human rights issues. In particular, there is a need for greater clarity on the boundaries of government and company responsibility to protect and advance human rights in the ICT sector, and how ICT companies can undertake due diligence to minimize the risk that their products and services are associated with human rights violations.

The graphic above illustrates one vision for growing ICT company and stakeholder engagement over time. What do you think of these ideas? How should ICT companies be addressing human rights?