The Documentalist

Phones Powerful Human Rights Tools Only When Companies Don’t Side with Repression

Posted in Editorial, Human Rights news by Sarah on August 11, 2011

On August 9, 2011, Katrin Verclas posted a piece at demonstrating the obverse of power of cell phones as a tool for citizen journalism and human rights activism.  As much as we laud the power of mobile technology for helping to call immediate attention to human rights situations around the world, it is sobering to remember that the companies that make it possible for people to communicate and share information via cell phones can be the single largest obstacle to using our phones as powerful tools of protest and awareness-building.  As Ms Verclas reports, mobile phone companies side more often than we would like with the repressive regimes that people–their customers–seek to resist:

Vodafone’s recent decision to shut down its communications network in Egypt and the delivery of pro-government propaganda via text message over its network made the news but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The examples abound: Uganda operators monitored and blocked certain SMS keywords in the advent of the recent election there, pro-Zanu propaganda is widely delivered over Zimbabwean operator networks, Russian mobile operators agreed to ‘police’ the Internet and their networks at the behest of the Russian government, and Belarussian telcos routinely supply information to the security police, including location information of known political activists.

This close collaboration of many operators with repressive states has been going on for some time but there is now a new activist movement forming, holding telcos accountable and to a higher standard. Led by activist shareholders and advocacy organizations like Access, activists point out that the negative publicity of this corporate behavior carries  financial implications that pose a risk to telco investors.

Ms. Verclas goes on to illustrate how activist groups such as Access Now seek pressure telecommunications companies to stop siding with repressive regimes, namely, by pressuring them through bringing liability suits for injuries incurred and lives lost in areas of repressive conflict that could have been prevented if victims had had cell phone service.   The goal of Access Now is to pressure telecom groups to live up to five principles, which are as follows:

  1. Providers should retain complete control over their network at all times and ensure
    that users always have access to it.
  2. Providers have a duty to protect their users.
  3. Providers should uphold principles of non-discrimination and should abstain from filtering their networks, except for the purposes of network security and management.
  4. Providers should uphold principles of transparency, accountability, appealability, and due process in all of their actions and transactions.
  5. Providers should commit to using spectrum allocation in a judicious and equitable manner.

Activists are using lawsuits as a means of putting moral and financial pressure on telecommunications companies to avoid implicitly siding with repression, which is what they in effect do when they think of their bottom lines before the lives of the individuals who use their service.