By Susan Morgan. Susan is Executive Director of the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics working to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in information and communications technologies.

In a world with more than five billion mobile phone subscribers and where 48 hours of video footage is being uploaded to YouTube every minute, the challenges navigating the nexus of human rights and technology are too complicated for any single company or human rights activist to manage on their own. WITNESS’s new report, “Camera’s Everywhere,” attests to the importance of bringing together companies, human rights and press freedom organizations, investors, and academics to collaborate to protect the rights of users of technology worldwide. This is what the Global Network Initiative (GNI) brings to the table, using the collective expertise of its members to seek to create a global standard for how companies can respond to governments in ways that uphold fundamental rights to free speech and privacy.

Not that long ago, the notion that cellphone cameras would be ubiquitous and that video could be captured, edited, and disseminated in near-real time by activists around the world was the stuff of science fiction. But as the report’s authors perceptively note, the impact of all this new technology is far from an unambiguous good, and it presents as many challenges as it does opportunities.

With billions of people around the world using information and communications technologies (ICTs), the decisions that companies make—about where they store their data and how they respond to government requests, to name just a few—can have far-reaching human rights consequences. These are not easy issues. Governments have a responsibility to preserve national security, however they do not always do so in ways consistent with other fundamental rights including freedom of expression and privacy. Recent events from the Arab Spring to the riots in London have demonstrated the importance of these issues to companies in many countries they operate in around the world.

With increasing government interest in communications technologies, companies in the ICT sector increasingly find themselves caught between government requests for information, and their responsibility to respect the human rights of their users. This is why it is so important that companies make informed decisions and that they integrate human rights into their operations in a meaningful way. Here’s how Arvind Ganesan, Director for Business and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch and a GNI board member, describes these issues:

GNI brings together the diverse viewpoints and expertise needed to help companies grappling with the unexpected challenges at the intersection of human rights and technology in a turbulent world.  There is no “one size fits all” approach to corporate responsibility, nor a single script for all to follow. This is why we invite all ICT companies to participate in the GNI and draw upon the guidance and insights provided by the GNI’s principles and guidelines in creating a responsible approach to business decisions.

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