A decade of transformation in tech and human rights

By: Nicole Karlebach

The UN Guiding Principles turn ten

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BASKING RIDGE, N.J. - June 16th marks the tenth anniversary of the UN Human Rights Council’s unanimous endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). In the decade since the Guiding Principles set forth the fundamental expectation that companies should operate with respect for human rights, we’ve witnessed their transformative impact firsthand.

At Verizon, we believe that we have a responsibility to apply our technology, operations and employees to efforts to move the world forward into a more connected, secure and sustainable future.

At the time the UNGPs were endorsed in 2011, Verizon had published its first human rights statement. Today, our Business and Human Rights Program (BHRP), the first of its kind at a U.S. telecommunications company, guides our efforts to make responsible business decisions consistent with the expectations found in the UN Guiding Principles.

To mark the occasion of the UNGPs turning ten, we sat down with experts on business and human rights from NGOs, the UN, academia and other companies at this year’s RightsCon Summit to reflect both on what has been accomplished and future opportunities to make an impact and create change.

From Mobile to MEC

One of the most unique aspects about applying the UNGPs to the tech sector is the pace of innovation. In 2011, 3G, which provided consumers with the ability to read email, and browse the Internet on their mobile devices for the first time, had just given way to 4G and the ability to stream video, post photos and hail ride-share vehicles. Much of the discussion on the human rights impacts of technology companies was focused on the ways in which tech companies responded to government requests for user data or to block content.

Fast-forward to 2021 and the 5G era is here and with it the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the growth of the Internet of Things. As the tech ecosystem has grown increasingly dynamic, the potential for diverse human rights impacts and opportunities has also increased.

How did the lessons of 2011 prepare us for the world of 2021 and beyond? 

Focus on the Fundamentals

At Verizon one of the most important lessons we’ve learned when it comes to business and human rights is about the value of proactively investing in the fundamental concepts embedded in the UNGPs: governance, integration, engagement and transparency.

Governance

Verizon’s corporate purpose is to create the networks that move the world forward, and we are committed to doing so in a way that benefits our four key stakeholders: customers, shareholders, employees and society. We know that to maintain our position as a trusted brand known for responsible innovation, we need to consistently demonstrate strong governance of human rights. Verizon’s Human Rights Statement sets forth our commitment to respect human rights guided by the UNGPs. This work is led by our dedicated BHRP team and overseen by Verizon’s Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative, Legal and Public Policy Officer, and the Corporate Governance and Policy Committee of our Board of Directors.

We know that to maintain our position as a trusted brand known for responsible innovation, we need to consistently demonstrate strong governance of human rights.

Integration and Engagement

Our BHRP team is part of Verizon’s wider Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) office and relies on a global cross-functional team of internal partners to integrate attention to human rights into the DNA of our company. We also engage alongside our colleagues with a wide range of external experts and organizations, including with civil society, academics and socially responsible investors. With this cross-functional approach, we have been able to leverage the expertise of diverse colleagues and experts to continually anticipate and address new and emerging questions and to conduct ongoing human rights due diligence of our business decisions, products, operations and strategy consistent with the expectations found in the UNGPs.

Transparency

We have always sought to be accountable for our human rights efforts, including by being transparent. In 2020, we published a new webpage dedicated to human rights within our ESG hub and we consistently integrate information regarding our human rights approach into our ESG reporting and our engagements with stakeholders. Transparency across industries is increasingly becoming mandatory in the face of new expectations from both investors and legislators. Our commitment to transparency over time has prepared us well to continue to refine our disclosure efforts to meaningfully address the questions of today and the potential of tomorrow. 


Verizon’s consistent commitments to the core fundamentals of governance, engagement, and transparency have helped it drive technological innovation while addressing the needs of its stakeholders. These fundamentals are central to the expectations set forth in the UNGPs. Our adherence to them over time has allowed us to fulfill our human rights commitments even in times of great transition and evolution,  both in corporate form and the nature of the technologies that define our business. We look forward to continuing to build upon these fundamentals and to setting industry human rights benchmarks in the next ten years of the UNGPs.

Learn more about human rights at Verizon.

About the author(s):

Nicole Karlebach is the Global Head of Business & Human Rights at Verizon

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