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Human Rights in the Digital Era: Business Respect for Civil and Political Rights in Times of Emergency

An event with Mr. Phil Bloomer, Ms. Nighat Dad, Mr. Apar Gupta, Ms. Malavika Jayaram and Ms. Isabel Ebert
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Digital Rights Foundation / Facebook Oversight Board, Internet Freedom Foundation, Digital Asia Hub / Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (Harvard University) and University of St. Gallen / University of Oxford

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About this event


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, various governments have introduced measures with significant consequences for human rights. For example, while some governments have introduced limitations to qualified rights such as freedom of expression, others have taken extreme steps by derogating from their human rights obligations. Measures relating to mass bio-surveillance, censorship and misinformation, and even artificial intelligence potentially have severe consequences on the enjoyment of human rights. There are a number of States that are tracking people’s movements, communications and health data through telecommunications, camera footage, transport bookings, financial data, social media, facial recognition, and temperature checkpoints, among other means. Moreover, various laws are being adopted to counter the spread of misinformation, some of which are used to restrict free speech and access to information, and crack down on political opponents. States themselves may even spread misinformation. Finally, artificial intelligence is being deployed for purposes of mass surveillance and social control, often without proper oversight, regulation, and checks and balances.

While governments are setting up these systems, businesses are providing the means and the tools. This raises the urgent question about the responsibility of businesses when governments are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable under international human rights law. In these contexts, businesses may be aiding States in measures that violate basic civil and political rights. Alternatively, businesses may adversely impact the enjoyment of these rights without any involvement of States whatsoever. Given these circumstances, it is imperative to reflect on whether and how businesses should address their actual or potential adverse impacts on civil and political rights.


Discussions will highlight the responsibility of digital technology businesses in respecting civil and political rights during and after COVID-19. Particular attention will be paid to how such businesses can respect the right to freedom of expression (which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds), the rights to be free from discrimination, arbitrary detention, and interference in private life.


This session aims to:

  • Identify potential adverse impacts on civil and political rights by digital technology businesses in the context of COVID-19;

  • Discuss these businesses can respect civil and political rights, even when States violate their human rights obligations and seek to involve businesses;

  • Conclude how digital technology businesses can future-proof their activities in line with the UNGPs.


  • What are the most pressing business-related human rights abuses (potentially) caused by digital technologies employed in the context of COVID-19?

  • How much room do businesses have to respect civil and political rights when States seek to involve these businesses in questionable practices and measures in response to COVID-19? In this respect, what should businesses do when confronted with conflicting requirements under State policies/regulation and the UNGPs?

  • What are the most pressing issues digital technology businesses (or alternatively: your company/organization) faces, and how do you plan on addressing these in the future?

Mr. Phil Bloomer

Phil Bloomer is Executive Director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a digital action platform that empowers human rights advocates in civil society, business, and government.

Ms. Nighat Dad

Nighat Dad is the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation working on the digital rights discourse in Pakistan along with cyber harassment, harassment, data protection and free speech online. She identifies as a feminist and works to empower women through the use of ICTs. Nighat is one of the pioneer women's rights activists in Pakistan in the 21st century, especially in the context of defining the cyberspace narrative in Pakistan and has been at the forefront of the feminist movement in the country.

Mr. Apar Gupta

Apar Gupta is a lawyer and the Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). The IFF is an Indian digital liberties organisation that seeks to ensure that technology respects fundamental rights.

Ms. Isabel Ebert

Isabel Ebert is a Researcher and PhD Candidate at the Institute for Business Ethics, University of St. Gallen. Her PhD focusses on ethical questions regarding data disclosure by companies to governments. Since September 2019, Isabel is a visiting researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. Isabel served as the EU Representative of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, based in London (2014-2018).

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