Human Rights Guidance for ICT Sector from EU Commission

February 14, 2012

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry has finalised the selection of three business sectors that will be the focus of a new, year-long project to develop sector-specific guidance on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. The information and communication technology is one of the three (the others are employment and recruitment agencies and oil and gas). 

The EU Commission says that these sectors face a wide range of significant human rights challenges that could benefit from detailed guidance for companies.

The activities envisaged for the development of human rights guidance for the ICT sector will contribute to the implementation of the European Commission’s No Disconnect Strategy on Internet freedom.

The selection of these sectors is said to have been based on objective criteria and rigorous analysis carried out by Shift and the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB).

The guidance will be based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The European Commission identified the development of sector-specific guidance as one of the priority actions in its recent communication on corporate social responsibility.

Extensive consultations with enterprises and all concerned stakeholder groups are planned as part of the project process. Shift and IHRB will coordinate this process on behalf of the European Commission. The development of the guidance is due to be completed by the end of 2012.

Any organisations or individuals wishing to submit comments or questions in relation to the project can email

EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes described the move as ‘great news’ and welcomed the idea of ‘kicking off a process to make it easier for makers and users of ICT products and services to know the impact their technology has on Human Rights across the world’. The nature of the project is probably illuminated by her comments: ‘If western technology is being used by repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, then I think we – manufacturers, suppliers, citizens, and democratic governments—ought to know.’

In short, this is not merely about whether outsourcing leads to sweatshop conditions as is suggested with regard to Apple and Foxconn (although it may well have an impact in that area) but involves a much wider view of human rights responsibilities.

Whether the idea of ‘human rights due diligence’ bringing an obligation on companies to check on their processes and relationships – and to remedy any negative human rights impacts will be regarded as ‘great news’ throughout the ICT sector remains unclear. One key factor will no doubt be the extent to which any such obligation translates from moral obligation to solid regulation and the answer to that may take some time to emerge.