Engaging Policy Makers on Tech Regulation using the UNGPs

27 September 2021

To highlight the necessity of a human rights-based approach to regulatory efforts in the technology sector, the Geneva Academy co-organized with the UN Human Rights B-Tech Project and the Centre for Democracy & Technology’s Europe Office a multi-stakeholder consultation that was attended by business, academia, civil society and state representatives.

Developing a Tool to Inform Human Rights-Based Design Choices for Tech Regulation

The experts provided their views on how the United Nations (UN) Human Rights B-Tech project can support states through the development of a ‘UNGPs check’ tool (working title). Such a tool would allow policymakers and other stakeholders to assess whether their regulatory or incentive-based initiatives directed at the technology sector align with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

Lene Wendland, Chief, Business and Human Rights at UN Human Rights highlighted ‘our current idea is that the UNGPs check would provide states with a roadmap to assess that their efforts across different policy domains relevant to tech/tech companies’ operations, products and services are aligned with the UNGPs.’

‘Recently, the technology sector has seen several new developments in mandatory measures proposed and adopted by states. For instance, mandatory human rights due diligence legislations are increasingly relevant for the technology sector, as technologies such as AI have proven to have a wide-range negative impacts on human rights’ explains Dr Ana Beduschi, former Senior Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy.

Cover page of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The EU Draft Digital Services Act to Illustrate the Use of ‘UNGPs check’ Tools

To illustrate the potential use of the ‘UNGPs check’ tool, participants discussed the provisions for due diligence, risk assessment and oversight in the draft Digital Services Act (DSA) in the European Union – which aims at establishing a common set of rules for online intermediary services’ obligations and the protection of users’ human rights online – and discussed how the ‘UNGPs check’ tool could support its implementation.

‘To align with international human rights standards, the due diligence provisions in the DSA must introduce a clearer obligation for companies to adopt a human rights lens to the impact of their products and services. This should include scrutinising government-ordered take-down requests and resisting those that are not compatible with human rights’ adds Iverna McGowan, Director of the Centre for Democracy & Technology’s Europe Office.

Participants agreed that the stakes for EU policy-makers are high. More broadly, policy-makers globally need to understand how regulatory efforts around tech in one jurisdiction will shape how the corporate responsibility to respect human rights is interpreted in the tech sector, and might, in turn, affect regulation in another jurisdiction. Ideally, the ‘UNGPs check’ would construct bridges between different expert communities and across jurisdictions to foster a strong basis regarding the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in the technology sector – and build a concise, coherent and rights-respecting regulatory framework.

Part of a Boarder Research on Disruptive Technologies and Rights-Based Resilience

To address the technology industry’s complexity, scale, and fast-evolving nature, states should have at their disposal regulatory elements allowing them to require technology companies to respect human rights. In doing so, it is important that states increase their capacity and maintain policy coherence when adopting regulatory and policy measures aimed at the technology sector. Similarly, states play an important role in providing effective remedies for human rights harm arising from or related to technology companies’ conduct.

Our research project on disruptive technologies and rights-based resilience – funded by the Geneva Science-Policy Interface – precisely supports the development of regulatory and policy responses to human rights challenges linked to digital technologies.

The Geneva Academy will continue to collaborate with the UN Human Rights’ B-Tech Project, to provide academic expertise concerning the potential uses of the ‘UNGPs check’ tool, its scope, format and reach.

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