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Do Tech companies care about human rights?

New Zealanders have a choice when it comes to making ethical investment decisions.

Paul Brownsey Paul Brownsey 3 minute read

Are human rights universal? The way some large global technology companies behave suggests some don’t regard human rights as transferable across national borders.

Last year, Apple adopted a new policy titled “Our Commitment to Human Rights”. It’s an aspirational document, full of statements like “People Come First”, and “We’re committed to respecting the human rights of everyone whose lives we touch”.

It’s encouraging that they say “where national law and human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard.” However, they undermine this by not defining any minimum human rights standards.

Then it gets worse. The very next sentence says that where national law and human rights standards are in conflict, Apple will respect national law.

That won’t likely be a problem for Apple customers living countries that broadly accept basic human rights (think the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, New Zealand). But what if you’re unfortunate enough to live in a country where individual human rights are not respected?

Some countries have strict domestic censorship policies that are, by any measurement, significantly below acceptable international standards. What is the approach of large technology companies here? Unfortunately there are plenty of damaging examples of western tech companies delivering restricted services to their customers in these countries.

Microsoft disabled search results for customers in China seeking information on Tiananmen square protests. Apple removed identity hiding software in countries with repressive governments like Myanmar. TikTok’s internal documents revealed they were censoring posts that could offend China. Linkedin has done the same. Apple removed thousands of apps from its store that the Chinese Government finds offensive, yet these same apps are available outside China.

Apple has gone a step further, building a massive data centre in China to hold information on its Chinese customers. Ownership of the data has been ceded by Apple to a company called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a company fully owned by the Government of Guizhou province. Apple users in China have ceded ownership of their data to this Chinese Government owned company, Apple is now mentioned in user terms and conditions as just an “additional party.” Under Chinese law, the Government now has full access to this data.

Imagine the outcry in the US if Apple built a data centre in Florida and gave the FBI full access to customer data. Or in New Zealand, if the Government had full access to the same data for Kiwis.

Is this important? That depends on your ethical belief about the power balance between individuals and the state.

Make no mistake, large global tech companies are profit driven. Apple is the world's most valuable company, in large part because of the tight commercial bonds (assembling products and selling them) with China.

In return, it offers customers in different parts of the world different levels of privacy.

While questions like this are important for ethical investors, there’s no objective black and white line separating the investible from the un-investible. With ethical investments there are seldom easy answers that everyone agrees on.

The solution is transparency and disclosure about why a fund manager or KiwiSaver provider makes the investment decisions they do. Some investors are happy with minimum legal standards having no reference to universal human rights. For others an ethical approach is paramount.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we have choice around ethical approaches to investment. People have options and can make informed decisions. Unfortunately for consumers in many countries governments and tech companies give neither transparency nor choice.

Paul Brownsey is chief investment officer of ethical fund manager and KiwiSaver provider Pathfinder Asset Management, which is part of Alvarium Wealth.

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