Global Funds Representing Nearly US$6T Call for Due Diligence in ICT Sector to Prevent Infringement of Users' Digital Rights
Concerns over user privacy and freedom of expression prompt investor letter to 26 ICT companies benchmarked in the 2020 Ranking Digital Rights Index.
NEW YORK, NY, TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5TH, 2021 – A group of global investors engaging the information and communication technology (ICT) sector on human rights concerns announced they had sent letters to 26 companies assessed in the 2020 Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Corporate Accountability Index, escalating engagements they initiated with the sector in 2018.
The investors say the continued pressure is needed to resolve long-standing, systemic issues in the tech sector related to its business model and a lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight structures to prevent human rights/digital rights infringements that are already having profound adverse impacts on people and society. As one example, the recent Wall Street Journal series – Facebook Files demonstrates the risks tech companies face when effective oversight structures are not in place.
The group of 76 letter signatories includes global asset management firms and faith-based investors, many of which are members of the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition committed to engaging portfolio companies on their responsibility to respect human rights in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). As a result of investor engagement, many companies in the sector have adopted human rights policies. The investors say what is needed now is robust implementation of those policies via the UNGP’s human rights due diligence process. The investors report that roughly half of the companies that received the letter have responded, and progress to advance due diligence is being made.
“While ICT companies as a whole are more aware of the human rights risks their products and services may present, including violations of free expression and privacy, we are failing to see adequate responses from big tech companies in the U.S. like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google/Alphabet acknowledging and addressing the root cause of these human rights harms: their targeted advertising business model that continues to prioritize profits over people,” said Anita Dorett, Director of the Investor Alliance for Human Rights. “The marked increase in support for this statement demonstrates a growing understanding within the investor community of the increasing systemic risks an infringement of digital rights can represent for the public interest.”
The Investor Alliance has published several ICT salient issue briefings which help educate institutional investors on the human rights expectations of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies and provide tailored guidance to address some of the salient human rights issues present in the sector.
ICT companies have come under intense scrutiny by the press, legislators, and a host of NGO and civil society organizations concerned about the unchecked power of technology companies and the human rights/digital rights risks inherent in platforms used by billions around the world. Recent examples include the rampant spread of misinformation and viral hate speech, increased levels of illegal surveillance including that which enables immigration policing, attacks on democracy, the censorship of dissident voices, and discrimination against marginalized communities, including racial and gender discrimination due to artificial intelligence and algorithmic bias.
“Human rights are universal and unconditional, and so is companies’ responsibility to respect them. Investors play a vital role in compelling companies to prioritize good governance over techno-solutionism, public health and safety over the pursuit of unfettered growth, and comprehensive transparency over transparency theater,” said Jan Rydzak, Company and Investor Engagement Manager at Ranking Digital Rights. “Ranking Digital Rights is proud to support the Investor Statement on Corporate Accountability for Digital Rights and investors’ direct engagement with some of the largest ICT companies in the world. Through our annual Corporate Accountability Index, we equip investors and advocates alike with the data and analysis they need to draft and promote shareholder resolutions that put human rights first.”
Consistent with the practices outlined by RDR, the letter asks the companies to:
- Commit to and implement robust human rights governance
- Maximize transparency on how policies are implemented
- Give users meaningful control over their data and data inferred about them
- Account for harms that stem from algorithms and targeted advertising
“We believe that investors should make clear their expectations that ICT companies uphold fundamental human rights given the impact of violations on our society,” said Michela Gregory, Director ESG Services for NEI Investments. “The RDR index remains an extremely useful tool for investors to evaluate the performance of ICT companies and their exposure to legal and reputational risk, and to push for industry-wide progress on evolving digital rights issues.”
“While a growing number of companies are pledging to protect users’ freedom of expression and/or privacy, the latest RDR Index reveals significant gaps in corporate governance and oversight. Companies should make commitments to conduct robust human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate their impacts on people,” said Louise Piffaut, Head of ESG Equity Integration at Aviva Investors. “This letter is part of our ongoing engagement with this high-risk sector, in the hope that it will help to remedy these gaps and prioritize the safeguarding of digital rights.”
About the Investor Alliance for Human Rights
The Investor Alliance for Human Rights is a collective action platform for responsible investment that is grounded in respect for people’s fundamental rights. Its members include asset management firms, public pension funds, trade union funds, faith-based institutions, family funds, and endowments. Collectively, they represent over US$6trillion in assets under management and 18 countries. The Investor Alliance is an initiative of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Visit our website at: https://investorsforhumanrights.org/ and follow us on Twitter: @InvestForRights