Technology and innovation

Of our focus sectors, the technology1 sector was represented by the second smallest sample of survey respondents and largest number of interviews: 9 technology sector survey respondents partook in the survey, supplemented by 5 in-depth interviews and representation at our roundtable. The following trends were observed:

  • 78% of respondents had human rights policies or statements relating to human rights.
  • Human rights due diligence focused particularly on privacy and freedom of expression. Processes focused on these rights were more sophisticated than processes for the identification of other human rights impacts.
  • Stakeholders consulted for the purposes of identification of human rights impacts were mostly employees and their representatives, and suppliers. End users are often not consulted. 100% of survey respondents which answered an optional question about leverage indicated that they had ‘no leverage whatsoever’ over purchasers.
  • Survey respondents deem themselves to have significantly more leverage over small suppliers than over large suppliers and manufacturers. 
  • Where adverse human rights impacts were identified, they were often linked to the activities of third parties such as government entities, over which survey respondents deem themselves to have ‘very little leverage’ or ‘no leverage whatsoever’. However, interviews revealed that leverage over government entities can improve significantly by focusing on government relationships.
  • Developments in technology are often too fast for regulation to keep up. Where regulation does exist, laws relating to privacy and freedom of expression differ from one country to another. The sector accordingly relies heavily on self-regulation, industry guidance and a peer-to-peer collective approach.
  • In this sector, the human rights impacts of a product’s design is an important part of human rights due diligence. Respondents and interviewees referred to ‘privacy by design’ and ‘security by design’, and engineers receive training on human rights.

Where human rights due diligence had been performed:

  • the process was often integrated into one or more of three other processes: engaging a new supplier, engaging a new business partner, and/or for reporting purposes. The function/department most frequently responsible for identifying human rights impacts was CSR. This was followed by Legal, Procurement/Supply Chain Management, Audit and/or Risk Committee, Compliance and/or Public/Government Relations.
  • Functions responsible for implementing action(s) to prevent, mitigate or remedy actual or potential adverse impacts were Legal, Public/government relations and/or an individual role dedicated to human rights.

 Of those respondents which indicated that they had not conducted a specific human rights due diligence process, 66.67% did take human rights into account in other due diligence processes, predominantly in relation to labour rights (100%). Workplace health and safety and equality/non-discrimination were next, each at 50%.

The focus on supplier / business partner engagement and labour rights is likely a reflection of the fact that the technology industry, most notably electronics manufacturers, have in recent years been the focus of adverse media coverage in connection with labour welfare issues in the supply chain. This is similarly apparent from the list of known human rights risks in the sector, highlighted by the respondents:

  • Labour issues
  • Child labour
  • Living wage
  • Health and safety
  • Discrimination
  • Supply chain issues, including conflict minerals
  • Privacy
  • Freedom of expression

The final two human rights issues listed, privacy and freedom of expression, are specific to the technology sector and are particularly acute risk areas for telecommunications firms and manufacturers of surveillance equipment and software.

Top incentives for conducting human rights due diligence are:

  • Compliance with regulatory reporting
  • Avoidance of legal risk
  • Good corporate governance
  • Reputation

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1 When broken down according to sector, survey results for the technology industry cannot be said with confidence to be representative of the entire industry, for several reasons: the number of respondents from this sector was very small, respondents were self-selecting, completion of the survey was voluntary, and several questions were optional. Ultimately, however, we believe that in combination with our robust follow-up interviews, our findings highlight some interesting trends and points for discussion relevant to the sector.