Technology & Human Rights: Five Trends That Matter to All Companies

Next time you go shopping for an appliance or a tool, or to pick up more diapers (guilty!), you might encounter a robot helping you out.  Retailers including Best Buy, Lowes, and Target are deploying robots in their stores to help with customer service, retrieving merchandise, or taking inventory.  Over the past few months, Article One has worked with a number of technology companies to help address new challenges at the intersection of technology and human rights.  But it was the realization that technology issues kept coming up in our human rights work with clients in retail, consumer products, hospitality, and other sectors that spurred us to reach out to a number of experts in this field to better understand emerging trends and stakeholder expectations. 

Our conversations revealed five key technology and human rights trends that emerged consistently as priorities that all companies should address:

1. Big Data Equals Big Responsibility: As more companies collect, use and benefit from big data, their responsibility to respect the right to privacy of their customers and users increases.  While most companies have robust data security systems in place, there are also important human rights implications related to where data is stored, how customers are informed about data collection and use, and under what circumstances data access is granted to law enforcement. 

Retailers collecting data about the shopping habits of their customers, and auto companies that offer integrated location-based services, ride sharing platforms, and – soon – self driving cars, are among those that should proactively explore and address these issues now.  They can follow the lead of technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, who issue transparency reports detailing their responses to government requests for data and continue to address these issues collaboratively through the Global Network Initiative. The next frontier for companies to is understand the human rights impacts of using big data to surface consumer habits, and in some cases secrets.


2. Automation and Good Jobs: The US Presidential Election and the recent Brexit vote in the UK both highlight the growing discontent among many who feel that they have been left behind by globalization.  If the trend towards automation is real and here to stay, and there are many reasons to believe that it is, it is likely to exacerbate this challenge.  Robots are already replacing jobs performed by human workers in manufacturing, in retail, and in agriculture.  And even many of the new jobs created by the on-demand economy could be replaced soon, as ride sharing platforms such as Lyft ready themselves for a shift to self-driving cars

Of course, this is not a new trend.  During times of economic disruption, the loss of jobs in the old economy typically comes with new jobs in the new economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is no different.  However, companies should assess and proactively manage the potential human rights impacts associated with their own transition and integrate respect for human rights in their business models.


3. Individual Responsibility, Collective Action: Many companies are involved in the delivery of new technology solutions.  When you use your smartphone to purchase a pair of pants, for example, you rely on the hardware manufacturer, producers of various key components, the software developer, the service provider, the developer of the retailer’s app, and the retailer itself.  When it comes to the user’s right to privacy of their data, each of these companies has their own responsibility to ensure that their part in the solution is developed and delivered with respect for human rights. 

The need for each company to understand and address its own individual responsibility does not mean it should go it alone.  Dialogue and collaboration among all players are essential to ensuring that in the delivery of online and mobile services, human rights are respected.  While the electronics supply chain still has a long way to go to address human rights impacts at the raw materials and manufacturing stages (more on that later), the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) provides a good model of collaboration among companies, many of which are major suppliers to each other.


4. Regulation that Protects Human Rights: A key question that both business leaders and human rights advocates (and yes, they can be one and the same) are struggling with is the role of companies in public policy.  While on the one hand, the private sector’s involvement in policy through lobbying is of major concern to many stakeholders, we have also seen the power of business to advocate for public policy that protects and advances human rights.  The NBA pulling its All Star Weekend from Charlotte, North Carolina over that state’s discriminatory law targeting the LGBT community is just the latest example. 

Public advocacy by business for human rights is particularly important when it comes to technology.  With rapid advances in technology, laws and regulations are often outdated quickly.  Lawmakers and regulators, in trying to catch up, do not always fully consider or understand the human rights implications of technology.  Businesses in all sectors should stand with human rights advocates to call for sensible laws and regulations that allow innovation to thrive while protecting fundamental human rights.


5. Don’t Forget About the Hardware:  While it is tempting to focus on the human rights implications of new, innovative technology, of big data, automation, and artificial intelligence, we are far from having solved a more basic human rights challenge: the working conditions under which the hardware enabling much of these technological advances is made.  From the extraction of raw materials, where there is grave concern about child and forced labor and other abuses outside the scope of the conflict minerals regulations, to allegations of human trafficking in the electronics supply chain, companies should continue to work to address these issues individually and collectively.   

While they may be part of indirect spend for many companies, they still have a responsibility to use leverage over suppliers to improve working conditions under the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.  The definition of what makes a technology company will continue to evolve, and as Ford became the first automaker to join the EICC, other companies should follow to proactively address the human rights impacts involved in making the technology they use.


At Article One, we will continue to explore these issues as we work with our clients to develop and implement effective human rights strategies and management systems.  We will continue to provide updates on our work here.  If you have thoughts on these or other issues, let us know below or at