After an intensive four-day visit to Silicon Valley, in California, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged States to adopt a “smart mix of measures to regulate new technologies,” and announced plans to launch a project to help technology companies incorporate established international human rights principles into workable company practices.
“Finding a smart mix in a digital, networked environment is particularly challenging and requires innovative thinking,” Bachelet said, on her return to Geneva. “The regulation of new technologies needs to be flexible and capable of evolving to address the changing needs of this sector.”
“We cannot afford to underestimate the urgency of finding solutions to some of the unforeseen and possibly overwhelming threats to human rights that are emerging as a result of technological advances,” she said. “Technology can, and should, be all about progress. But the hugely invasive powers that are being unleashed may do incalculable damage if there are not sufficient checks in place to respect human rights.”
During her visit to the Silicon Valley area from 15-18 April, the UN Human Rights Chief engaged with top executives from major tech companies including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce. She also discussed the challenges – and opportunities – posed by new technologies with experts and students at Stanford and Berkeley Universities, as well as with civil society organizations, diplomats, philanthropists, technologists and entrepreneurs working on tech-related issues.
“My frank conversations with the tech companies included tough questions about the threats posed by the technologies they invented and control, as well as their positive potential,” Bachelet said. “These are not abstract concerns about the future, but are current reality for millions, especially the most marginalized on all continents. Directly or indirectly, new technologies are revolutionizing the way we think, the ways we are governed, the food we eat and the air we breathe. They are reaching into every corner of our existence.”
The High Commissioner noted a few of the examples she had raised, such as the Saudi government app, distributed on the Apple App Store and in Google Play, which ostensibly provides access to government services, while also allowing Saudi men to restrict the movement of women. She also pointed to the role anti-Rohingya sentiment posted on Facebook may have played in the ethnic cleansing and possible genocide against this minority in 2017.
She noted how, in the United States, machine-learning algorithms employed in hiring processes and in the criminal justice system have been shown to have significant biases, usually against women and racial minorities.
“There is an understandable rush to regulate new technologies. But poor regulation can be just as harmful as no regulation. Regulation of digital technology needs to find the right balance: we should not, for example, hinder innovation that could help address climate change or cure diseases. Regulation is clearly needed to respond to incitement to hatred and violence, but our natural desire to confront that threat should not lead us to strangle freedom of expression in the process.”
In her meetings and discussions in Silicon Valley, Bachelet stressed that the well-established UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a globally recognized human rights framework for the responsibilities of business enterprises with regard to human rights, and are as applicable to advanced technologies as they are to older industries and businesses. Among other important elements, the Guiding Principles call on companies to provide remedies to individuals harmed by company involvement in human rights abuses.
“We do not need to start from scratch,” she said. “The UN’s human rights framework has already been endorsed across the globe and can help mitigate the impact of new technologies on human rights, while on the other hand ethics vary significantly across different countries and cultures, and can more easily be misused or ignored. Leaving individual companies on their own to develop rules and self-regulate, means placing too much power in the hands of such companies and will inevitably lead to a fragmentation of approaches where industry-wide regulation is needed.”
“Although some companies are wealthier and more powerful than some States, they cannot act as their substitutes,” Bachelet said. “States need to step in to regulate companies, but at the same time, companies need to step up to meet their own responsibilities.”
“We are discussing with relevant actors how to translate these principles into workable company practices,” the High Commissioner said. “We cannot expect Big Tech to self-regulate effectively, nor do I believe we would want them to. The onus is on both technology businesses and governments – and also civil society – to work together to identify effective and equitable policies. This is what we mean by a ‘smart mix.’”
Bachelet praised the work on the intersection of human rights and new technologies being carried out by organizations she met with during her mission such as the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch. She described their work on various critical challenges related to facial recognition, artificial intelligence, privacy, and freedom of expression as “both essential and inspirational.”