Background: Human Rights and the Private Sector

With the rise of the Internet, major mechanisms for facilitating both speech and surveillance are now under the control of private sector online intermediaries. This has resulted in increasing moves to recognise that the private sector has a direct responsibility to respect human rights which has materialized in frameworks, recommendations, and guidelines stipulating that States have an obligation to prevent human rights abuses by third parties, while private entities have a responsibility to respect human rights and act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others, and that victims of rights abuses deserve access to effective remedies, both judicial and non-judicial.

Rather than creating a platform for an influential few, as newspapers or broadcasters do, the Internet’s power is that it gives everyone a platform, and potentially a global audience. Private sector intermediaries facilitate speech directly by individuals, therefore their policies and practices can be very significant for free speech online. The Internet has also led to traditionally public avenues for expression being replaced by private services.

Efforts to promote respect for human rights among private online intermediaries are, in many ways, more complicated and challenging than promoting at the State level. There are three layered challenges which any initiative to promote good practice in the private sector faces. The first is engagement, simply getting major private sector interests to the table. The second is transparency, in terms of getting access to internal information in order to conduct assessments and then being open about the results of those assessments. The third is actually fostering change: convincing companies to amend policies or practices which are problematic. Internal compromises may be needed to limit these challenges.

These are significant challenges but the human rights community must address them if it is to promote greater respect for human rights by corporations. Although this is a field which is still in its infancy, the importance of the private sector to guaranteeing respect for human rights, and in particular of private sector online intermediaries to guaranteeing freedom of expression and privacy, requires continued focus and engagement in order to promote positive change.