Telecommunications Companies Release Guiding Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy

The Telecommunications Industry Dialogue, a group of eight telecommunications companies, recently published a set of Guiding Principles on freedom of expression and privacy. Originally formed in 2011, the Industry Dialogue also announced a two-year partnership with the Global Network Initiative.

Current participants in the Industry Dialogue include: Alcatel-Lucent, France Telecom-Orange, Millicom, Nokia Siemens Networks, Telefonica, Telenor, TeliaSonera, and Vodafone.

Through a commitment to the Guiding Principles, these companies have agreed to

  • Create and maintain policies establishing commitments to assess, mitigate, and prevent risks to freedom of expression and privacy associated with telecommunications technology and services, and ensure that those policies are overseen at the board-level;
  • Conduct regular human rights impact assessments and use human rights due diligence processes to identify, mitigate, and manage, risks to freedom of expression and privacy, in accordance with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • Create or maintain processes to evaluate and handle government requests that may have an impact on freedom of expression and privacy;
  • Adopt, where feasible, strategies to anticipate, respond, and minimize the potential impact on freedom of expression and privacy of government demands that are unlawful or illegitimate;
  • Always seek to ensure the safety and liberty of company personnel who may be placed at risk;
  • Train relevant employees on related policies and processes;
  • Share knowledge and insights with relevant and interested stakeholders;
  • Report externally on an annual basis on progress in implementing the principles;
  • Help to inform the development of policy and regulations to support freedom of expression and privacy; and
  • Examine options for implementing relevant grievance mechanisms.

For the next two years, the Industry Dialogue will be formally “housed” within the Global Network Initiative, a partnership which is intended to provide opportunities for the sharing of best practices and collective learning, and to allow for the leveraging of existing tools.

Not surprisingly, the Guiding Principles contain the caveat that they will only “apply to participating companies where they have operational control.” This is the same qualification that guides corporate participation in the Global Network Initiative, but it is likely to have a more far-reaching impact. The business models of the information and communications technology companies that participate in the Global Network Initiative — including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Websense, and Evoca — generally provide these companies with more operational control of their activities in countries around the world as compared to telecommunications companies. Telecommunications companies, in contrast, are frequently operating in joint ventures with local, often state-owned, partners and, in many contexts, may not have “operational control” as defined in the Guiding Principles, specifically:

the power to determine, directly or indirectly, the management policies of such company or entity, through the ownership of a majority of its stock voting rights, or being entitled to appoint a majority of its board of directors or body performing a similar function, or by agreement or otherwise.

Whether or not the telecommunications companies have operational control in practice, these companies are facing increasing pressure to exercise leverage over their partners in order to protect freedom of expression and privacy rights. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how the Industry Dialogue is able to address these challenges through the implementation of the new Guiding Principles while maintaining an active dialogue with stakeholders regarding the unique challenges that face this sector.