Technology in Conflict: Conflict Sensitivity for the Tech Industry

In recent years we have increasingly seen the power of technology exploited to propagate dangerous speech, widen ethnic and religious divisions, and incite violence. Seemingly innocuous technologies now regularly contribute to human rights abuses and violent conflict. Current governance schemes are proving to be deplorably inadequate at addressing the risks of technology in conflict-affected markets. In this briefing paper, we examine the critical questions of why the technology industry should mitigate the risks of doing business in conflict-affected or high-risk areas and how it can do so.

With the rapid speed and global scope of technological development, it is no surprise that technology products and services contribute to violence and conflict in diverse contexts. There is devastating evidence of how social media has been used to coordinate and direct hate-based violence in the United States and to promote a terrorist attack in New Zealand. Social media has also been used to further large-scale human rights abuses, armed conflict, and mass killings in places like Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere

Governments are ordering telecoms companies to shut off internet access in conflict-affected and restive areas. Advances in AI technology are being exploited as tactics in asymmetric warfare, and facial recognition is being used to repress and surveil on a mass scale. Contact tracing apps developed to fight outbreaks of COVID-19 pose serious humanitarian risks in communities where violence and tensions are on the rise. These are just the known problems with existing technology—as technology continues to develop, so will the risks and unintended consequences.

In addition to the potentially devastating loss of human life, these (mis-)uses of technology also contribute to economic stagnation and have the potential to destabilize entire regions. And when human rights abuses or conflict are linked to the involvement of a particular company or industry, that company’s brand and reputation suffer. Consequently, it is in the best interest of all stakeholders, particularly the private sector, to mitigate the risks of technology being used to incite violent conflict.

Unique Challenges for the Tech Industry

“Doing business” for the tech industry raises unique considerations. The largest tech companies operate at a global scale with billions of users. This makes the scale and complexity of conflict impacts significant.

There are many ways that tech companies are inadvertently contributing to conflict dynamics. They can directly facilitate harm; incentivize harm; fail to conduct human rights due diligence; or fail to act to mitigate risks when they knew or should have known about potential harms. Sometimes technology products are used by third parties in order to foment conflict and abuse. Content moderation decisions by social media platforms can exacerbate a conflict. So can following government orders to shutdown internet services, or collect and process sensitive data. Sometimes just releasing a product or service in a conflict-affected market can have adverse impacts on the conflict. What is more, software developers are usually based in relatively insulated tech hubs in the US or Western Europe. In many cases, companies develop technology for “global” markets, and do not explicitly consider so-called “edge cases,” like conflict-affected markets.

Emerging Concern with Few Answers

Technology’s role in facilitating human rights abuse and inciting violence has become an emerging concern of regulators and civil society. They have made calls for improvements to internal and external corporate regulation. Nevertheless, the relevant domestic and international regulatory approaches remain fragmented, reactionary, and ill-equipped to respond in thoughtful and systemic ways. Moreover, most business and human rights initiatives and ethical standards fail to address many issues specific to rapidly changing technologies and their impact on human rights and conflict. They also fail to take into account how companies perceive, react to, and operationalize these norms at scale.

Many tech companies avidly support human rights and have robust internal policies for addressing issues such as privacy and free speech. However, those policies usually do not extend to conflict sensitivity or taking steps to diminish the impact of products and services on violence and conflict. There are many open questions about responsibility for harm, the impact of technology on conflict, and specific steps companies can make to support peace. Further research is urgently needed in those areas. Conflict situations present extremely high risks for companies, but attention to these issues is low. Tech companies need awareness and guidance on how to address these complex situations.

Conflict Sensitivity Can Help Mitigate Risks

Conflict sensitivity is a tried-and-true framework for how tech companies can mitigate risks that their products and services will contribute to violence and conflict. Taking a conflict-sensitive approach to technology development has many tangible benefits for companies. It can help mitigate the legal and financial risks that arise when companies are associated with human rights abuses, violence, and armed conflict. These issues not only open up companies to civil and criminal legal liability but also negatively impact the bottom line. Early adopters of these practices can help shape emerging regulation and good practices in these areas. Finally, companies that adopt rights-aware and conflict-sensitive business practices can contribute to building peace and contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Companies have been left with an impetus for change, but without meaningful guidance or norms for how to put that change into practice. In this briefing paper, we suggest that conflict sensitivity provides an essential framework for addressing these risks. We briefly outline some of the ways technology is contributing to conflict. We then provide a high-level overview of what conflict sensitivity is and how it relates to existing human rights frameworks. We conclude by offering recommendations for how tech companies can begin integrating conflict sensitivity into existing human rights due diligence processes.

Recommendations

The need for and benefit of conflict-sensitive business practices by the tech industry is evident. But the topic is complex, and many issues require more attention and research. Companies are grappling with difficult and nuanced questions about how best address these issues, and require detailed bespoke guidance.

We urge business leaders to incorporate a conflict sensitivity framework into their existing approaches to responsible technology. They should consider the following high-level recommendations:

1.     Embrace conflict sensitivity.

2.    Engage in multi-stakeholder dialogues.

3.     Build internal capacity on conflict sensitivity.

4.    Enhance existing human rights due diligence processes to include conflict sensitivity.

5.     Conduct conflict sensitivity assessments.

6.    Adopt conflict sensitivity strategies and tools.

7.     Consider how different risk mitigation strategies can impact conflicts.

8.    Conduct robust stakeholder engagement and community participation in high-risk markets.

9.    Use community participation as a tool for stakeholder engagement.

10.  Develop tools and policies to enable fast and flexible responses to emerging risks and conflicts.

11.   Take advantage of opportunities to contribute to positive peace, peacebuilding efforts, and alleviating conflict drivers.

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