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Taking an Ecosystem-wide Approach to Human Rights Due Diligence in the Technology Sector


Founded in 2008, the Global Network Initiative brings together leading information and communication technology (ICT) companies, civil society organizations, academics, and investors from around the world. GNI’s work is based on the premise that ambitious, collaborative, multi-stakeholder approaches are needed if human rights are to be protected, respected, and fulfilled in the technology industry.

Working closely with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), GNI recently developed a tool that we hope will further such efforts — both within and among GNI members, as well as across the broader ICT ecosystem.

The concept of human rights due diligence (HRDD) lies at the core of both GNI’s guidance to and assessment of ICT companies, as well as the broader UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). While many companies have developed processes for conducting HRDD, today most of these efforts are undertaken by companies acting alone, rather than in collaboration with each other or with stakeholders.

The technology industry is an interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated ecosystem of diverse business entities and stakeholders, and many technology and human rights challenges are system-wide and/or geography-wide, not company-specific. Decisions made in one part of the ecosystem can have impacts elsewhere in the system, and industry actors may need to take coordinated action to address a given risk or impact.

Examples are multitude and include regulatory decisions to protect user data, which have impacts on the availability of information about domain registration for law enforcement purposes, which can then create pressures and impacts on other actors who law enforcement may turn to for related data. Similarly, decisions by certain platform services to sell user data to third-party brokers has led to unforeseen opportunities for certain government actors to procure that data without having to go through legal or administrative processes and safeguards. Finally, the perceived inability or unwillingness of social media services to address certain abhorrent content has led to pressure from civil society and governments on carriers and infrastructure-level providers to address that content.

While every company has the responsibility to address their own adverse human rights impacts, sustained progress on human rights will require companies and stakeholders to take an ecosystem-wide view and approach. Companies in the technology industry don’t exist as self-reliant entities, and their approach to human rights shouldn’t be disconnected either.

In practice, this means two things: first, that individual company actions need to be taken with the broader ecosystem as context; second, that collective action to protect, respect, and realize human rights in the technology industry should supplement the sum of individual company actions.

Turning this belief into reality requires a practical resource for both companies and stakeholders, and for this reason BSR and the GNI, with financial support from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, drew upon our shared experiences and networks to create a new resource for “Across The Stack: Understanding Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) Under an Ecosystem Lens.”

This ecosystem approach has been inspired by a collection of challenging questions that have become increasingly prominent when undertaking human rights due diligence in practice:

  • What adverse human rights impacts may arise in one part of the technology ecosystem due to a decision made in a different part?
  • Are there certain actions to address human rights impacts (such as on freedom of expression) that are best made in one part of the technology ecosystem rather than another?
  • Are there certain actions to address human rights impacts that would be “right” in one part of the ecosystem but “wrong” in another?
  • How can companies undertake meaningful engagement with stakeholders, while recognizing the engagement fatigue that arises from duplicative due diligence by companies operating independently?

During consultations to inform this resource we were struck by two somewhat conflicting points.

Some participants felt that the current focus on individual company due diligence “lets many companies, and other relevant actors like governments, off the hook” by focusing attention on companies receiving the most media scrutiny. These participants emphasized the importance of clearly conveying the notion that individual companies can’t solve everything alone.

On the other hand, we heard countervailing concerns that an ecosystem approach might “let all companies off the hook” by providing a framework that allowed companies to constantly shift responsibility to others and plead futility regarding their ability to address risks. These participants emphasized that the ecosystem approach should not negate the notion that every company has a responsibility to adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.

We believe both statements are grounded in truth, and our aim in creating this resource is to enable the improved implementation of the two positive elements in each statement — that every company has a responsibility to adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved, and that we can achieve this far more effectively with systemwide and collaborative approaches.

For this reason the “Across The Stack” resource includes a map of the technology ecosystem and high level human rights issues and due diligence “questions” for each segment of the ecosystem.

The mapping of the ecosystem is accompanied by a case study on a hypothetical Software as a Service (SaaS) company, which demonstrates how the mapping tool can be used to explore connections across the ecosystem and enhance human rights due diligence.

These resources were created via the GNI’s Human Rights Due Diligence Working Group and benefited from multiple rounds of stakeholder feedback. We are grateful for the opportunity to participate with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the UN B-Tech Project, and others in the Action Coalition for Responsible Technology, which provided the space for earlier versions to be discussed and refined. The resource will benefit from testing, piloting, and shared learning, and should be considered a work-in-progress, not a final state publication.

BSR and the GNI anticipate that this resource will be helpful in the following ways:

  • Investors seeking to understand human rights risks across the technology industry.
  • Human rights practitioners at technology companies seeking to understand (1) human rights priorities across the technology ecosystem and (2) their connections to these human rights priorities.
  • Civil society organizations engaging companies and governments on priority human rights issues across the technology ecosystem.
  • Regulators and policy makers seeking to understand how policy interventions in one part of the technology ecosystem may impact human rights elsewhere.
  • Human rights assessors seeking to help companies conduct meaningful human rights due diligence.
  • Standard setting organizations seeking to guide the development of professional standards that go beyond technical specifications to protect human rights.

The publication of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011 and the accompanying uptake of voluntary human rights due diligence by companies has been one of the most encouraging developments since the GNI was launched. We hope this resource helps maintain ambitious, innovative, and robust approaches to protecting rights online as we enter a new era characterized by mandatory human rights due diligence.



Global Network Initiative

GNI is the only multistakeholder initiative dedicated to advancing freedom of expression and privacy in the information and communications technology sector.