What the tech sector can do to respect human rights in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and beyond

Over the past two weeks, the international community has watched the crisis in Ukraine escalate into war. In the midst of this crisis, the tech sector finds itself as a player in the conflict, caught between government and regulatory demands to limit or restrict services and growing pressure from the public and civil society to take urgent action to prevent human rights harms. 

However, this crisis really began in 2014, giving companies operating in the region at least eight years to develop policies and practices for a situation like this. What we’ve seen instead is the outsized power of the tech sector being wielded in an inconsistent manner as decisions to leave, stay, or limit and restrict services deeply impact the lives of individuals in the region. For example, in 2020, Telegram decided to reinforce its infrastructure in preparation for potential internet shutdowns and blockings during the Belarus elections, allowing millions of Belarusians to document and report on the protests and associated human rights violations that authorities preferred to keep in the dark. Similarly, as war broke out in Ukraine, Google disabled live traffic data on Maps to keep Ukrainians safe. On the other hand, in September 2021, Apple and Google decided to pull an app by opposition party leader Alexey Navalny’s team designed to inform Russian voters about electoral candidates in their district on election day. 

Many technology companies are currently struggling to maintain operations in Russia, not only due to an unprecedented number of economic sanctions and export controls imposed by the U.S. and the E.U., but also due to Russian government pressure, including the so-called landing law which requires companies to set up legal entities in the country, making them more vulnerable to government demands, as well as a new law adopted after the invasion of Ukraine which punishes anyone spreading “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison. In response, some companies have suspended their services in the country altogether. 

As the war in Ukraine continues to unfold, it is critical that all businesses, but especially tech companies and those investing in the tech sector, carefully review their ongoing and planned activities in the region to fully understand how and whether their operations can potentially cause or  contribute, even indirectly, to any adverse human rights impacts.

Compliance with sanctions is not compliance with human rights obligations

This war has shown that the tech sector can act quickly when it chooses to, and sanctions have been an important driving force in pushing companies to act – for better or worse. A few points: first, companies cannot point to compliance with sanctions as sufficient evidence that they are meeting their human rights obligations to those who depend on their services.  As our partners at the Investor Alliance for Human Rights stated in a recent investor alert, corporate compliance with economic sanctions and export controls on Russian entities and individuals is necessary, but in no way sufficient to fulfilling their responsibilities under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Second, not all sanctions and export controls achieve human rights or humanitarian purposes. These mechanisms are driven by states for a variety of interests – political, economic, and otherwise – so while companies may comply with the sanctions they are subject to, that compliance does not equate to a human rights-based approach or satisfy human rights obligations. 

Finally, we must make clear that companies can do harm, even inadvertently, when navigating complicated sanctions regimes. For a decade, Access Now and our partners in countries like Iran, Sudan, and Syria – and now Russia – have fought against corporate “overcompliance,” or a business’s choice to restrict more goods or services than current sanctions require, or restrictions that continue in place for years after sanctions have been lifted. Overcompliance forces civil society organizations, journalists, and human rights defenders to rely on older, insecure, or counterfeit software and hardware, or to use complicated workarounds to get online and do what most of us take for granted every day. 

The most important thing companies and investors can do in such a situation to fulfill their human rights obligations under the UNGPs is to ensure they fully understand their human rights impact – not only for the parent company but also local affiliations, suppliers, and any other business relationships potentially connected to and contributing to their operations. If a company’s due diligence investigation indicates that it is not possible to continue operating without violating these rights, companies must ensure, as much as possible, that their potential exit from the country or withdrawal of goods or services from the market does not, in turn, result in other adverse human rights impacts.

Recommendations for companies and investors

In the face of such a brutal and blatantly illegal use of military intervention, it is more important than ever for companies and investors to work together and engage with civil society and human rights advocates on ground to fully understand the potential human rights consequences – and the potential solutions – of the tech sector as a whole  in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

We urge tech companies and investors to take the following steps to understand and address the human rights impacts of business operations in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus:

Recommendations for investors:

  • Conduct ongoing, enhanced human rights due diligence and check for any direct equity or fixed-income investments in Russia or Belarus involving the Russian and Belarusian state or any of their agencies, state-affiliated entities, or Russian separatists in occupied eastern Ukraine to understand your potential risks, whether these are direct or indirect risks occurring through your potential investment.
    • If the situation continues to escalate in the region, ensure you have the processes and the governance in place to redo the Human Rights Impact Assessment.

  •  In case you do identify any companies in your portfolio which may – directly or indirectly – cause or contribute to a human rights violation through their operation, engage their executive management directly to confirm they understand and acknowledge their risks, and that they are taking steps to mitigate such risks.
    • Consider excluding companies that are unwilling or unable to mitigate their exposure to human rights harms.

  • Engage with civil society and human rights organizations to learn more about specific risks, including those related to unintended harms, posed by your portfolio companies.
    • If not already a member, consider joining a responsible investor or human rights multi-stakeholder group.

Recommendations for all tech companies:

  • Take all possible measures to protect your workers and the communities in which your value chain operations take place in Ukraine.

  • Take care to understand the human rights impacts of current and potential sanctions, in consultation with civil society, and avoid overcompliance in policy and practice.

  • Publicly affirm your support for the democracy, territorial sovereignty, and fundamental rights of the people of Ukraine and for the international rule of law.

  • Map your value chain for exposure to business activities involving the Russian and Belarusian states or any of their agencies, state-affiliated entities, or Russian separatists in occupied eastern Ukraine.

  • Design and implement processes to enable the remediation of adverse human rights impacts including those impacts on their in-country staff and local stakeholders.

  • Regularly publicly report on due diligence efforts and procedures in place to cease, prevent, and mitigate those negative human rights impacts.

  • Adopt policies and practices that identify, assess, and address the heightened human rights risks inherent in conflict-affected and high-risk areas.  

Recommendations for telcos and internet service providers in Europe:

  • Protect infrastructure to maintain connectivity and push back against any orders for internet and communications shutdowns.

  • Take proactive steps to ensure connectivity and access including:
    • Waive call, text, and data charges for all communications from and to Ukraine, and lifting SIM registration and other identification requirements for those arriving from Ukraine. At minimum, all roaming charges should be lifted;
    • Boost network capacity, as through “cell-on-wheels” mobile cell sites, in key locations such as border crossings;
    • Facilitate the export, transfer, and activation of new connectivity technologies, including alternatives to traditional telecommunications infrastructure such as mesh networking, satellite, and radio-based tools, as appropriate and in coordination with local actors in Ukraine/the conflict affected region; and
    • Limit data collections of people leaving Ukraine and do not comply with any data localization requirements in Russia or Belarus to avoid persecution of dissidents and journalists.

Recommendations for tech platforms:

  • Maintain services in the region to the extent possible.  In war time and other fragile and conflict-affected situations, these platforms are even more necessary for civic organizing, communications, and receiving and imparting information. 

  • Limit the reach of Russian and Belarusian state-sponsored propaganda actors and the spread of disinformation on your platforms. Any restrictions should be in compliance with the rule of law and the principles of legality, legitimacy, and necessity and proportionality.

  • Ensure that algorithmic content curation practices to promote online content with verified news sources are in line human rights standards.

  • Preserve documentation of violence, for potential future efforts to hold people accountable for violating humanitarian law and human rights violations and ensure that victims get access to remedy. 

How the tech sector chooses to respond to the current situation in Ukraine will set a precedent for future conflicts – therefore, it is essential that companies get it right. This is a chance for the sector to step up and do what it did not do in similar situations in Ethiopia, Palestine, and Myanmar. The immense power of the sector can be wielded to protect human rights.