“Innovation in Business and Human Rights: The Role of GNI”
by Dunstan Allison-Hope
When asked to write this blog about the place of the GNI in the business and human rights movement, it would have been easy to focus on how the GNI uses a multi-stakeholder approach to increase the power of advocacy in favor of freedom of expression and privacy worldwide. I could just as easily have focused on the nature of the coalition itself, with human rights organizations, companies, academics, and investors collaborating in ways that seemed unimaginable in 2006.
All of these things are true, but as we enter a new era of transformation driven by artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other disruptive technologies, I believe these factors play an essential supporting role in something equally significant: the role of the GNI in identifying, exploring, and shaping how companies can uphold the corporate responsibility to respect in circumstances that are utterly different than anything we have experienced before. The GNI’s place is innovation.
My first interaction with what was to become the GNI took place at Business for Social Responsibility’s offices in San Francisco in February 2006. Alongside the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, we convened a brainstorming session with Google, Microsoft, Vodafone, and Yahoo to discuss how companies could address new challenges relating to privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet. We started planning for this meeting in late 2005.
These dates are significant. They were more than two years before John Ruggie presented the Protect, Respect, Remedy Framework to the UN Human Rights Council, and more than five years before the UN Human Rights Council unanimously approved the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The GNI benefits greatly from the UNGPs today, but they didn’t exist back then.
We were unclear about what conceptual framework to work from while grappling with novel questions about freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet. Is it better to provide a censored service or provide no service at all? How can companies navigate different attitudes for freedom of expression in, say, China, Germany, and the United States? How should an Internet company respond when it receives overbroad demands for personal data? How much do companies know about the content of these demands anyway? This was before the Arab Spring, before Snowden, and before fake news.
We didn’t have clear answers, and the starting point of different stakeholders, including companies, civil society organizations, investors, and academics, were quite varied. I remember a meeting later in 2006 where someone observed that corporate responsibility practitioners were used to dealing with situations where laws were mostly good but were being under-enforced. We were dealing with situations where laws were mostly bad and were being over-enforced. Our playbook needed to be different.
From 2006 to GNI’s launch in October 2008, we defined new norms, principles, and guidelines about the role of companies in respecting human rights online. In 2018, we benefit from many well-established norms, principles, and guidelines, but the challenge of interpreting them in the context of disruptive technologies and addressing the reality that governments will harness new technology in ways that threaten the rights to privacy and freedom of expression remains even truer today than in 2008. Learning about these new challenges, debating the right role for companies, and moving rapidly to collaborative action is desperately needed. For these reasons, the GNI’s focus exploring the impact of new technologies, engaging in critical policy debates about the future of the Internet, and maintaining pace with widespread disruptive change is the organization’s uniquely valuable place in the business and human rights movement today.
*Dunstan Allison-Hope is Managing Director for Business for Social Responsibility in San Francisco, California.