Advocates Seek Human Rights Commitments from Telecommunications Companies

Access, an advocacy organization that promotes open and secure access to the Internet, recently released its Telco Action Plan, a document that sets forth ten steps and implementation objectives for telecommunications companies (“telcos”) seeking to operate with respect for human rights.  

Access launched the plan at last month’s Stockholm Internet Forum and intends to use the document as a platform for dialogue with telcos that seek to operate in political and legal contents that may post threats to freedom of expression, access to information, and/or privacy rights. 

Building on an earlier 5-Step Action Plan, released in 2011, the new plan is informed by both the U.N. Guiding Principles on Human Rights and principles of the Global Network Initiative.  Foley Hoag’s CSR practice provided input on the drafting of the 2012 plan. 

Specifically, the Action Plan calls on companies to:

  1. Operate in a manner that respects the fundamental human rights of all users, including the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy.
  2. Seek to ensure that users’ access to telecommunications networks is maintained at all times.
  3. Conduct ongoing due diligence on the human rights-related risks associated with their operations in consultation with local and international stakeholders, including independent human rights experts.
  4. Integrate the findings from human rights due diligence efforts into the management of their operations in order to prevent adverse human rights impacts.
  5. Requests from governments and partners to restrict users’ access, freedom of expression, or privacy should be presumptively rejected.
  6. Insist that any restrictions on users’ rights strictly comply with international human rights laws and standards and the rule of law, and are necessary and proportionate to achieve a clearly defined and legitimate public purpose.
  7. Be transparent with all stakeholders regarding current or likely restrictions on users’ access, freedom of expression, or privacy.
  8. Engage in unilateral and multi-stakeholder dialogue, and advocacy as needed, with governments and business partners to ensure that users’ rights are protected at all times and to strictly limit the human rights-related risks associated with the provision of telecommunications services.
  9. Ensure that all users have access to appropriate public and/or private remedies, including accessible grievance mechanisms, to seek redress in the event that restrictions are imposed on their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy.
  10. Submit to independent assessment of corporate activities and compliance with human rights standards, such as through the Global Network Initiative.

The plan then provides specific implementation guidance for companies on how to operate in a manner consistent with the ten steps noted above.

Telcos have faced increasing levels of scrutiny tied to their investments in countries where human rights protections may be weak, and their technologies and infrastructure may be used to support human rights abuses. During the uprisings in Middle East and North Africa over the last two years, companies have confronted public outcries as a result of their responses to government requestsAs noted in a recent post, the White House recently issued an Executive Order imposing sanctions on information technology companies that facilitate human rights abuses in Iran and Syria.

Recently, a telecommunications industry dialogue has come together to discuss these concerns, especially those circumstances in which companies may be faced with government demands for user data and/or content restrictions. The new Action Plan is intended to inform these discussions and to encourage companies to be more transparent regarding their efforts to identify and mitigate the human rights-related risks of their operations.