“Anticipating and Addressing Human Rights Impacts in the 5G Environment”
By now, most people have heard about the impending advent of fifth-generation mobile communications technology, also known as “5G”. Given the breathlessness with which telecommunications companies, governments, and the media have discussed this forthcoming technology, there is a general sense that the transition to 5G will bring significant changes. These include the introduction or expansion of smart cities, augmented/virtual reality, driverless cars, and the “Internet of things” (IoT). Considering that much of this fanfare has coincided with parallel discussions around both the positive role technology can play in helping to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the abuses that are being committed using existing technologies, it is surprising that so little has been said or done publicly to explore how 5G might impact human rights.
As part of our commitment to fostering multistakeholder discussion about human rights and information and communications technology (ICT), the Global Network Initiative (GNI) took a first step toward filling that void by facilitating a panel discussion on the topic of “5G and Human Rights” at last week’s Freedom Online Conference in Berlin. I was honored to moderate that panel of experts, which included representatives of GNI-members Orange and the Center for Communications Governance at the National Law University Delhi (“CCG”), as well as frequent collaborators Access Now and Article 19.
During the discussion, panelists and experts in the audience identified a number of current issues related to technology and human rights that might be affected by 5G, as well as several novel impacts that might emerge with the adoption of the technology. The discussion helped frame a potential taxonomy for further exploration of 5G’s impacts, one which also guides this post: digital divides, security, and accountability. First, though, it’s important to put this all in context.
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As Sarvjeet Singh, executive director of CCG, reminded us, any discussion of 5G must start with an acknowledgment that much of the world remains completely disconnected from the Internet, and most of those that are connected are using 2G and 3G technology. According to Sarvjeet, this explains in part why two of the three mobile network operators in India have gone on record stating that 5G is not presently a priority for them.
Yves Nissim, Head of Transformation and Operation in CSR at Orange, helpfully explained that telecommunications technology typically consists of overlapping, 20-year cycles, placing us currently at the peak of the 4G cycle (ten years in) and the very beginning of the 5G cycle. Indeed, most of the talk of contemporary 5G rollouts refers to just one of several use cases known as “enhanced mobile broadband,” which essentially adds new capacity to existing 4G architecture. “Stand-alone” 5G technology, featuring ultra-reliable, low-latency, and massive machine-to-machine communications, is still several years away from deployment, even in most developed economies.¹
With that said, we are at a critical juncture, as the initial standard-setting exercises that will govern critical features like interoperability and security are already underway.² In parallel, countries are developing plans to auction bandwidth, and companies are making investments in infrastructure and 5G-dependent products, from driverless cars to Internet-enabled coffee makers. To the extent we can anticipate potential opportunities and risks, now is the time to begin addressing them through standards, regulations, and corporate systems and policies.
As Yves pointed out, 5G will create lots of new and exciting opportunities. This may include the provision of services to underserved populations, as well as tools that can aid in addressing complex challenges like disease outbreaks and global warming.
At the same time, to the extent that resources are spent developing 5G infrastructure that would or could otherwise be used to expand access to existing networks, Amie highlighted the potential risks of widening the gap between the connected and the unconnected. Katherine Getao, Kenya’s ICT secretary, echoed Amie’s concerns from the audience, asking whether 5G will increase connectivity and usage costs and whether 5G devices will be backward compatible with older networks. Furthermore, Amie noted, efforts to provide remote, virtual, ICT-enabled services to underserved populations could increase discrimination, to the extent they stand in for, rather than compliment, the provision of services, such as health care or education, that may be best delivered without relying exclusively on technology.
Sarvjeet pointed out that in the “Digital India” campaign, questions about whether no service is better than some service have emerged. He also raised another discrimination-related question about how to interpret network neutrality in the 5G environment. For instance, although India has taken a very strong position on net neutrality, it has carve-outs for “critical IOT” and “special services” like voice over internet protocol and Internet Protocol Television, which could have expanded relevance in 5G. Ephraim Kenyanito, from Article 19’s East Africa office, together with some in the audience, took strong positions on the importance of preserving net neutrality in 5G. Finally, as more aspects of more people’s lives become digitized, there will be a greater need for enhanced “digital literacy”.
Amie and Ephraim also pointed out that, absent sufficient safeguards, the huge amount of metadata created by 5G-enabled technologies will create significant risks for illegal surveillance and violations of data protection rules. It is important to recognize that 5G will not only increase the volume of data formats we associate with current mobile technology usage (video, audio, text) but will also facilitate and expand new data streams (health data, driving/traffic data, environmental data). Amie also noted that the proliferation of internet-enabled devices will exponentially increase the cybersecurity threat surface, thereby underscoring the importance of network and device security, vulnerability disclosure, encryption, and limits on government hacking.³
I would add that the transition to 5G should also offer opportunities to improve security. There is an important role for States to play in scrutinizing and safeguarding the deployment of new technologies. As Yves pointed out, several governments have scrutinized and in some cases prohibited the deployment of Chinese telecommunication infrastructure technology based on security concerns. Others stakeholders can also play a role. For instance, vulnerabilities in existing networks such as those that allow for network traffic interception (e.g., IMSI catchers and misuse of the SS7 protocol) could be anticipated and corrected in new 5G standards.⁴ Likewise, by incorporating privacy-by-design and human rights due diligence practices into the development and deployment of 5G infrastructure, network services, and IOT devices, companies can anticipate and avoid or mitigate negative impacts. The work that GNI member Open Technology Institute, together with Ranking Digital Rights and others, have done to develop the Digital Standard, to “to help guide the future design of consumer software, digital platforms and services, and Internet-connected products” is a good example.
5G networks will operate very differently from existing networks. An exposition of these differences is beyond the scope of this piece, but it seems clear from even a basic understanding that the 5G environment will lead to a significant increase in the number of entities managing or operating pieces of the network, providing digitally-enabled services, producing digitally-enabled products, and storing and/or processing data. To the extent questions around attribution, distribution of liability, and mechanisms for redress remain challenging in our current digital environment, this proliferation of actors and relationships is likely to worsen them.
It is important to recognize that — as with the development of new standards and technologies — the transition to 5G offers an opportunity to start fresh and build certain accountability-related expectations and guidance into accompanying laws and regulations, based on what we have learned. For instance, it has taken some time, but there is now a clear consensus that transparency constitutes a vital piece of just about any effort to address human rights concerns online. We should look for opportunities to bake this and other principles into the 5G environment.
In addition, just as new technologies can help societies “leapfrog” legacy technologies, we have a chance to help companies that are new to the digital environment learn from years of experience that existing ICT companies have accumulated in understanding how to apply the business and human rights framework to the digital realm. For example, the GNI Principles and Implementation Guidelines can help car companies and appliance manufacturers put in place proven and accepted systems for handling government requests for data.
The discussion helped me realize how important it is for today’s technology policy and digital rights community to not be intimidated by the complexity and uncertainty of technological change. Rather than being rendered obsolete, understanding of today’s ICT and human rights issues will be essential to grappling with how 5G will change those issues and create new ones.
5G is real, and it is, relatively speaking, imminent. As such, the digital rights community must move quickly to ensure that ongoing and future standard-setting exercises are transparent and facilitate civil society participation; engage with policymakers to ensure that they understand how human rights issues can be addressed in 5G auctions, licenses, and regulation; and seek out new corporate entrants to help them understand how they can respect human rights.
As GNI policy director, I look forward to continuing to engage with our members, as well as our friends and allies, to move these efforts forward.
*The views expressed do not reflect official positions of GNI or GNI members*
 For more on the different 5G “use cases”, see https://5g.co.uk/guides/what-is-enhanced-mobile-broadband-embb/.
 Bruce Schneier’s latest book, “Click Here to Kill Everybody”, outlines the risks entailed in harrowing detail.