Recent restrictions announced by the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on the use of BlackBerry services—citing various national security concerns—have shed light on challenging ethical questions that are growing in importance for major global companies across the whole information and communications technology (ICT) industry.

If you’ve closely followed mainstream media over the past few years, it would be understandable to conclude that almost all responsibility for protecting freedom of expression and privacy online lies in the hands of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. The media became so obsessed by a small number of high-profile brands that it dangerously drew our collective attention away from issues of great relevance elsewhere in the industry.

But over the past 18 months, attention has started to gradually shift. The (now defeated) Green Dam, Youth Escort proposals in China highlighted that PC brands could play a major role in restricting freedom of expression where governments demand it, while the 2009 Iranian elections sparked a debate about the ethics of selling telecommunications equipment into countries with poor human rights records.

So now that internet services providers, PC brands, telecoms network equipment manufacturers, and handset firms have all felt the heat on privacy and freedom of expression, what does this say about human rights in the ICT industry?

Here are three key points for ICT companies:

The challenge is to turn these conclusions about the relationship between human rights and the ICT industry into specific actions for individual companies. As a minimum, I’d advise ICT companies to start with two things:

Dunstan is co-author of Big Business, Big Responsibilities (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), which includes a chapter that explores human rights in the internet age.

  • First, human rights of freedom of expression and privacy are directly relevant for all companies in all parts of the ICT value chain. Companies can no longer say: “That’s mainly an issue for internet companies, but not really for us.”
  • Second, there is a need for the ICT industry and its stakeholders to better understand how the ICT network—as a whole ecosystem, rather than as separate components—impacts human rights. Different parts of the ICT value chain are highly interdependent and the system as a whole can be designed to minimize risks to human rights at every stage of the ICT value chain.
  • Third, we’re diving deeper and deeper into a game of cat-and-mouse between governments and ICT companies, where governments will seek to impose increasingly sophisticated surveillance and filtering technologies and methods on (unwilling) companies.
    1. Undertake a companywide human rights assessment to understand which products, services, technologies, operations, and customers present the greatest risks (and opportunities) for human rights. In today’s game of cat-and-mouse, it pays to be one step ahead.
    2. Become active participants in global, industrywide dialogues (such as the Global Network Initiative) to drive collaborative, pro-human rights agendas in the ICT industry as a whole.