Telecom Industry Dialogue to collaborate with GNI on freedom of expression, privacy rights

Access ( welcomes the announcement of a new collaboration between the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, and the Global Network Initiative. Beginning with a two-year trial, this collaboration holds the potential for meaningful engagement that yields more rights-respecting policies and actions in the telecoms sector.

“We’re encouraged to see the Industry Dialogue partner with GNI, a move Access has advocated for some time. While we expect that there will be challenges ahead, in both managing relationships and facilitating the Industry Dialogue to operate in accordance with GNI’s standards, this announcement is welcomed,” said Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access. “Ultimately, the most important thing going forward is that the rights of users around the world are protected. This move signals that the telco sector wishes to be held accountable for its policies and actions in this regard.”

Access has corresponded and advocated with the 8 international telcos currently in the Industry Dialogue, collectively and individually, for the past two years. While commending this proactive approach, we have questioned the pace of the group’s progress and its commitment to transparent and inclusive deliberations. Now we expect to see significant progress towards greater transparency, accountability and multistakeholder engagement.

Access expresses concern, however, that three major companies, AT&T, BT and Tele2, which had been members of the Industry Dialogue, are not part of today’s announcement, and will be approaching the companies individually with regard to their next steps.

The Industry Dialogue had sought a “home” organization for “a more formalised and inclusive process for stakeholder consultations, increasing membership, and developing a permanent management structure” around its guiding principles. Analysis by Access found that the Washington, D.C.-based GNI was the best and most suitable candidate, based on GNI’s “experience in providing expert advice to companies through independent assessments,” and familiarity with international human rights norms. The GNI has proven responsive to human rights advocates, while supporting its corporate members and providing channels of communication between corporations, government and civil society.

Given the high stakes and powerful interests involved, this collaboration will not lack tension. The GNI has held to its guiding principles and not diluted its membership requirements, which demand transparency, accountability and multistakeholder engagement. Due to the nature of the agreement between the parties, the Industry Dialogue’s telcos will not be joining the GNI. Therefore, it will be difficult to ensure that the telcos, which count among the world’s largest corporations and account to investors, shareholders, and governments, comply with human rights standards.

Access had commented on a draft version of the Industry Dialogue’s Guiding Principles, the final version of which were also released today. To help telcos better manage and remedy their human rights impacts, Access has issued principles and implementation objectives in the Telco Action Plan, and will review the new Guiding Principles in line with this guidance.

Despite assurances by telcos and regulators, user rights are violated daily through network throttling and industry compliance with government demands to access user data, filter content, and surveil networks. Egregious human rights abuses have been visited upon activists, journalists, and ordinary users for exercising their freedom of expression rights on mobile phones and the internet.

Recognizing these pressing issues, Access will closely watch this new collaboration while offering assistance where possible. We believe this collaboration with the telecoms sector has the potential to support GNI’s broader mission, and should help to enable the powerful Industry Dialogue companies to step up to the challenge and lead their peers on human rights. However, the coming months will prove the efficacy or otherwise of the relationship, and given the serious implications of telco policy on user rights internationally, it is essential that the collaboration delivers rights-respecting outcomes for telco customers across the world.

For more information, contact Mike Rispoli, by email, [email protected], or by phone, +1 732-890-5564