Page 78

Activism & Engagement | Technology This includes the ways in which many representing more than $3billion in assets tech companies have made central to their under management this year filed a proposal business models the extraction of personal at Alphabet Inc., parent of Google, asking the information, the sale of consumer data to company to publish a human rights impact undisclosed third parties and government, assessment for a controversial censored the unregulated use of tech products and search product – Dragonfly – that Google services, including as a means to surveil and has reportedly been developing for use in track consumers throughout everyday life. China. Led by Azzad Asset Management, the We believe these practices present massive shareholders expressed concern that Google’s long-term risks to companies and society. compliance with China’s repressive laws One of the best examples of this is would facilitate and legitimise surveillance Rekognition, a facial recognition technology and censorship, posing human rights risks. which is marketed by the Amazon Web The shareholders’ call to action at Google Services (AWS) unit of Amazon. Rekognition was timely, given recent reports that the performs image and video analysis of faces, company is already censoring its search including identifying and tracking people and product in Russia, blacklisting websites their emotions. Tests of the technology have raised concerns that it is biased, inaccurate ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and dangerous. In one test, Rekognition Boards need to keep technology disproportionately misidentified an eye on potential African-American and Latino members of risks of emerging technologies the US Congress as people in criminal mug shots, incorrectly matching 28 members of Congress with people who had been arrested, amounting to a five per cent error rate among legislators – and an even higher one among members of colour. In the hands of government, Rekognition threatens civil liberties and civil rights for all members of society, and especially for people who are more likely to be surveilled, profiled and targeted, including people of colour and immigrants. We have organised two shareholder proposals that will be voted on at this year’s Amazon annual general meeting in May. One resolution asks Amazon to halt sales of Rekognition to government unless the board ‘concludes the technology Tech companies, does not pose actual or potential which have civil and human rights risk’, the benefited from other resolution requests the board commission an independent study operating in of Rekognition regarding the extent an unregulated according to government to which the technology may environment, now instructions. India’s ‘endanger, threaten, or violate’ government is privacy or civil rights. The proposals face increasing considering new rules echo concerns of more than pressure to abide that could again implicate 70 civil rights and civil liberties Google in censorship. groups, hundreds of Amazon’s own by standards In submitting the employees, and 150,000 people who resolution, shareholders are asking Google signed a petition – all seeking to end sales to demonstrate that the company’s stated of Rekognition to government agencies. ethical codes, values, and policies are truly Human rights on a global scale informing all its products in the global Global tech firms increasingly face the market. Human rights experts say that a challenge of whether and how to market their Google search product in China would serve products in countries with authoritarian as an additional surveillance tool for the governments that demand control of government to use against all residents in information. It can be a risky negotiation f that country, and that Uighurs and religious or a company, especially a company with an minorities – who already face state violence, avowed commitment to human rights. We systemic discrimination and grave human support shareholders in asking companies to rights abuses – face the greatest danger. uphold a commitment to human rights and Looking ahead free expression for all consumers, regardless of How can the tech sector do better? where they live – as these open internet values And what role should shareholders are precisely what fuel the tech sector’s success. play in the digital future? For example, a coalition of shareholders 78 Ethical Boardroom | Spring 2019

There can be dialogue between investors and corporate management that leads to the adoption of policies and practices that improve outcomes for companies and society. The shareholder proposal process often serves as an early warning signal to alert corporate managers and boards of emerging risks. Those risks are greatest in the tech sector, where calls for ‘innovation’ at all costs have increasingly trumped respect for human rights. Tech companies, which have benefited from operating in an unregulated environment, now face increasing pressure to abide by standards, such as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework) and must comply with laws like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). When introducing new products and services, companies should carry out human rights impact assessments that are transparent, accountable, and provide an avenue for remedy for those affected by corporate actions. Tech companies are increasingly being pressed by regulators and even their own researchers to set up self-governance systems that scrutinise issues from privacy and consent to the potential for bias and discrimination built into machine-learning and AI systems. In early 2019, Google unveiled a high-profile, global, independent ethics council to guide ‘responsible development of AI’ at Google. Thousands of Google employees signed a petition calling for the removal of one of council member over her transphobic comments about trans people and her organisation’s scepticism of climate change – and a week later, Google disbanded the council, saying it ‘was going back to the drawing board.’ As artificial intelligence technologies are deployed across banking, retail, healthcare, education, travel and more, many industries will face similar challenges. Corporate boards and management need to be alert to the potential for AI to introduce into their businesses high elements of risk – risk which needs to be assessed and managed on a constant basis. Smart companies will insist on having digital and human rights expertise among board members, so they can better understand the implications of these new technologies. Shareholders will play a critical role in this emerging process; investors can be key players in encouraging companies to assess and address the potential impacts of tech products and services before they are deployed. Responsible businesses must step up to participate in policy dialogues, advocate for values-based industry practices and help set and implement technical standards that promote long-term, sustainable and equitable economic solutions. At Open MIC, we believe shareholder engagement is essential to ensure they do. www.ethicalboardroom.com

Profile for Ethical Boardroom

Ethical Boardroom Spring 2019