Access delivers Remedy Plan for telcos to redress human rights harms

News of unlawful surveillance, network throttling and shutdowns, and retaliation against users have brought telcos to the table to discuss the impacts of their operations.

Revelations that the US government spied on Associated Press journalists through their Verizon phones and other accounts add to a series of incidents that expose how telco operations can have adverse human rights impacts. After Verizon and the AP, telcos in Malaysia censored content during election periods, and France finally admitted that kicking users off the internet for alleged piracy is not a good policy.

These incidents underscore the important and increasing role that private companies play in enabling our human rights of access to information and privacy, and the freedoms of expression and association. They also prove the need for companies to take responsibility for remedying abuses, the subject of a new Access policy paper.

Guiding Principles and the Telco Remedy Plan

Alongside “Respect and Protect,” Remedy is the third ‘pillar’ of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a document that many telcos and companies in other industries have endorsed. Remedy aims to “counteract or make good any human rights harms that have occurred.” These Guiding Principles recognize that governments and companies each have responsibility to provide access to effective remedy – but more often than not, this pillar goes unaddressed.

To help telcos address these concerns, Access has developed guidance for telcos and other information and communication technology (ICT) firms in our new paper, Forgotten Pillar: The Telco Remedy Plan. The paper will be officially released at a special event open to the public in Washington, DC, on Monday June 24th.

The Remedy Plan offers analysis of the existing state of remedy, its comparative neglect compared with the pillars of Respect and Protect, and offers ‘Ten Steps’ outlining procedural and substantive options to address claims in line with the Guiding Principles. The Remedy Plan builds on our foundational Telco Action Plan, which guides telcos to better respect human rights and mitigate harms.

To date, the discourse on business and human rights in the ICT sector has studied the second pillar of the Ruggie Framework, respect for human rights. Acknowledging that the conversation is a relatively new one in the international human rights sphere, Access hopes to focus more attention on the third pillar, and to counteracting the adverse impacts on human rights that telcos and other communications operators sometimes contribute to.

Remedy in Procedure and Substance

Procedurally, the primary responsibility for remedy lies with mechanisms to gather and investigate grievances in the courts and judiciary. However, companies must also use non-judicial methods, such as complaint hotlines and employee feedback channels. These methods support the traditional, judicial systems by collecting evidence and resolving disputes before they grow more costly. Confidentiality standards, appeals provisions, and other essential ways to create safe and accessible grievance mechanisms are explored in the report, along with other measures that telcos can take to maximize their positive impacts and “know and show” their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Substantively, the report identifies seven ways for telcos to “counteract or make good” any abuses they contribute to. Depending on the context, these options begin with internal policy reviews, staff training, and preservation of evidence of any rights infringing activity. Where appropriate, telcos should hold external consultations with those affected and engage with other stakeholders, apologizing for infringement and compensating those affected where necessary to make good any human rights harms.

Access looks forward to developing remedy plans with telcos and other firms as part of their holistic commitment to respect human rights and mitigate harms.