AGM season begins: TeliaSonera accounts for rights violations

On Wed., Apr 3, Swedish-Finnish telco TeliaSonera held its first annual general shareholder meeting (AGM) since accusations of corruption and cooperation with abusive regimes led to former-CEO Lars Nyberg’s resignation. Marie Ehrlin, newly-elected Chairman of the Board, told reporters that TeliaSonera would bring in outside help to review their operations “country by country, transaction by transaction, and deal by deal.”

This commitment follows challenges for TeliaSonera as it operated in countries ruled by rights-abusing regimes. In 2012, journalists and activists uncovered evidence that the company granted security forces uninhibited access to networks and subscriber data in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Georgia, allowing them to surveil and geolocate cell phone users. Security agencies used this information to harass and arrest journalists and members of political opposition groups. Additionally, Swedish prosecutors are investigating the company over the corrupt acquisition of a 3G license in Uzbekistan.

(These actions led to TeliaSonera’s inclusion in Access’ recent Telco Hall of Shame. Access has also written about TeliaSonera’s troubles here.)

At the meeting, shareholders frustrated with the allegations of corruption and human rights abuse put forth several proposals, none of which passed. The first proposed to split TeliaSonera’s subsidiaries in countries with poor human rights records into a separate company, so that investors could withdraw support from operations which contribute to human rights abuses.A second moved to claim damages from the persons who have damaged the company, especially the company’s Management Group and the Board members of that time, as a result of the human rights and corruptions allegations.

Acting CEO Per-Arne Blomquist, who took over after Nyberg’s resignation, addressed the human rights and corruption charges in his speech, telling shareholders “it is not just our responsibility to meet your expectations when it comes to financial results, we must also run the business in an ethical and sustainable manner.” He maintained, “We have made great efforts in recent years to ensure good business ethics and a sustainable approach to business.”

Such steps include being a leading member of the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, and signing on to the Dialogue’s Guiding Principles. Additionally, the company has reviewed and revised their internal human rights policies, including the requirements for government surveillance of their networks, increased dialogue with stakeholders, publicly acknowledged some of the human rights abuses they have contributed to, and submitted to third party reviews of their human rights policies and ethical guidelines by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the law firm Mannheimer Swartling.

For some, this response is not enough. A small number of protesters outside the meeting called TeliaSonera’s reformed human rights policy inadequate. Isabel Sommerfeld, a journalist and advocate for human rights in Belarus where TeliaSonera has a minority stake in the telco “life :)”, disparagingly called TeliaSonera’s new policies “fine words on paper” that don’t stop the company from cooperating with authoritarian regimes.

While more reviews of their operations are welcome, it remains to be seen whether they will effect positive change in their subsidiary companies’ operations. And the company can do more to build on the positive steps of the past year in order to protect their users who live under political repression and constant surveillance. For example, the company could release transparency reports that show how much and in what ways they cooperate with authoritarian regimes, and implement operational strategies to ensure access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses they have contributed to.

Most importantly, TeliaSonera must stop allowing security agencies unlimited access to their telecommunications networks.

Access is committed to providing pragmatic guidance for telcos working to respect human rights, summarized in the Telco Action Plan, and will continue to work with TeliaSonera and other members of the Industry Dialogue to develop and implement their human rights policies.

For more information on our telco advocacy, contact our telecommunications policy analysts Peter Micek [peter (at) accessnow (dot) org] and Jeff Landale [jeff (at) accessnow (dot) org].