The Internet has become a powerful vehicle for exercising human rights. But it is also increasingly becoming a tool for restricting rights. In 2017 internet shutdowns blocked user access to information in 30 countries and more than half of the world’s internet users’ communications were surveilled or censored. The Internet’s infrastructure — the cables, satellites, and spectrum that transmit information between computers — can provide a bottleneck for governments and private actors alike to control information flows. This manipulation of Internet infrastructure can be used to limit a range of freedoms from surveilling conversations online and imposing censorships, to blocking users in a particular country from information about political issues. The majority of these chokepoints are controlled by private companies, often making them the mediators between respecting human rights with economic incentives and pressures to appease government requests for user data.
While the spotlight is increasingly falling on social media platforms for their role in undermining internet freedoms, private Internet infrastructure providers have gone relatively unscrutinised. Research shows that as providers gain users, they become more enticing targets for governments to co-opt in order to increase their control over citizens’ Internet access; a trend on the rise in dictatorships and democracies alike. Though state actors often initiate these attacks on users’ rights to access information, privacy and freedom of expression, private Internet providers should not be complicit facilitators.
The report finds key drivers for Internet infrastructure companies which have developed strong human right protections to be:
- Reputational concerns following revelations of human rights violations, or the spectre of negative press for potential future violations.
- Top-down accountability from corporate leadership signaling that human rights are a priority for the company.
Primary barriers to Internet infrastructure providers adopting human rights standards were identified as:
- Government requests for companies to interrupt the free flow of information and serve demands for censorship, surveillance, or obstruction of communication.
- Perceived high cost and unclear benefits of UNGP adoption, particularly when companies are not public facing.
Competition between companies was identified as both a potential driver and barrier, inciting companies to meet higher standards set by peers, or inducing them to settle to the “lowest common denominator” of human rights protections among their competitors.
Recommendations address how businesses and civil society can partner to mitigate risks and embed accountability mechanisms for human rights impacts.