Human rights in the tech sector

Many INGOs, including the one I work for, are keen on increasing the use of technology and digital solutions in their work. It's pretty well recognised that this should be done responsibly, in the sense that tech is used where it makes sense: to extend reach, amplify voices and improve cost efficiency. All good things. 

What gets discussed less often, however, is if the tech and tools we use are themselves responsibly produced, and whether that's any of our business. 

Unfortunately, the tech sector is fraught with human rights violations at almost every level. Amnesty International recently published a report outlining how major electronics and electric vehicle companies have failed to address documented human rights abuses in their supply chain, specifically relating to child labour in the mining of cobalt in the DRC.

Cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries, and more than half of the world's cobalt comes from the DRC. According to Amnesty's report, none of the leading tech companies are taking adequate action to comply with international standards on company practices, such as conducting due diligence checks on their supply chain and being transparent on human rights risks.

Workers' rights are a concern at other levels of the supply chain too. The "Foxconn suicides" of a few years ago brought to the fore the very poor working conditions of the millions of people of who assemble our phones and other gadgets in highly secretive factories in China. It's hard to know what improvements have been made since then.  

There are also environmental concerns. Some relate to the impacts of the mining of materials used in tech; others to short product life-cycles and e-waste. The energy consumption of technology also needs to be addressed. 

Recently, as the price of bitcoins has sky-rocketed, stories of the blockchain-based cryptocurrency's large energy consumption have gone viral. While the situation isn't as dire as some claim, and bitcoin's use of energy doesn't necessarily reflect that of all other blockchain uses, making sure tech not only enables its users to live greener lives, but in itself is as environmentally friendly as possible, must be on the agenda.     

We are the product

The issues don't end with the production of tech but extend to how it gets used. We like to think of the internet as a place where anything can be found (provided you have internet access), but the truth is quite different. From China's Great Firewall to internet censorship in places like Turkey, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt, much of the world's population accesses a censored internet

While much of the repression online is pushed by governments, some argue Silicon Valley companies are increasingly aiding them by complying with take-down requests.

So, on the one hand, the powers that be are trying to control what information we can access. On the other, they are trying to find out as much as possible about us. While there are ways to protect your privacy online, being private takes some effort and is hardly ever the rule. This is of particular concern when it comes to children, who without adequate digital awareness may expose themselves to risks.

UNICEF's recent State of the World's Children 2017 report argues that to protect children online a greater burden of responsibility needs to be placed on online service providers to set clear limits to their collection, processing and retention of children's data. 

Significantly, however, the authors of the report concede that until "tech companies start thinking about ethical design, users – especially children and young people – will continue to face the consequences of technologies designed for social media firms' financial incentives and not users' real needs".  

Does the goal justify the means?

When none of the tech companies have entirely clean hands, does that mean we shouldn't be using technology to aid and amplify our work? No. Turning our backs on tech would be foolish – we all know the variety of ways in which girls and boys around the world can benefit from being able to access the internet, or even use a simple mobile phone.

But we do need to be aware of the problems, and seek to address them when we can: demand due diligence from corporate partners, engage with companies for them to improve their human rights record, and educate children and adults on online risks and how to protect themselves.