5G and human rights: what’s the connection?
5G and human rights
Information and communications technology (ICT) is deeply integrated into our work and personal lives. Digital communication is more global, affordable, and accessible than ever before, enabling billions of people to share ideas, acquire knowledge, improve their quality of life and boost livelihoods. ICT also promotes greater transparency and enhances many fundamental human rights – such as the right to health, education, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
While the infrastructure supporting that digital technology is a crucial part of modern society, it is important to recognize the potential risks that greater connectivity brings. The same human rights that are enabled and transformed through digital connectivity could be the very same rights violated if the technology is misused.
In order to ensure a holistic approach, Ericsson has conducted a comprehensive assessment of human rights from a 5G perspective. These issues, and efforts taken by Ericsson to address them, are discussed in further detail below.
The ICT ecosystem
The global digital ecosystem supporting 5G consists of a wide range of companies delivering products and services to support faster and more secure mobile networks. These include mobile operators, network vendors, web-based platforms, component and hardware manufacturers and software developers. On top of that sits a vast innovation space, supporting a myriad of applications for consumers and businesses alike.
Different players share a strong degree of interdependence. However, the type of human rights risks they face – as well as their capacity to address them – may vary considerably, depending on their place and role in the value chain.
Understanding these interdependencies, as well as the unique roles of each actor, better enables companies to identify and address salient human rights risks and to create opportunities to cooperate in addressing risks and exercising leverage. This is especially true in the rollout of 5G, highlighted by the impact areas below.
Understanding human rights risks and potential impacts – a summary
Human rights risks can materialize in a wide range of ways as a result of the rollout of 5G. The impact areas can be very different in nature and occur in the supply chain, a company’s own operations, and in relation to end use of technology by a range of different actors. The Ericsson assessment explores these in more detail, but in summary these encompass the following:
- Livelihoods and job transitions: As 5G enables machines to take on more specialized and professional work, significant portions of the working population can be impacted in the future. This applies not only to jobs on factory floors – the so-called blue-collar sector – but also certain categories of white-collar employment. In addition to making current roles redundant, these developments will also exert pressure on businesses, governments and workers to develop new skills there may be a shortage of in the future.
- Health concerns: While not new to 5G, workplace accidents related to the installation of network equipment – including 5G networks – are a risk, especially when working from heights and with electricity. This issue will need continued attention.
- Supply chain impacts: The manufacturing of hardware will continue to engender labor-rights risks. 5G products increase the demand for specific minerals whose availability may require trade with countries with higher risk profiles and in conflict-affected regions.
- Privacy, data loss and misuse: The use of IoT will lead to vastly increased data flows and questions over storage and sharing of personal data. This will include government and state actors engaging in surveillances and private enterprise utilizing personal data to predict and monetize consumer/citizen behavior.
- Security and critical networks: Critical infrastructure, such as water and power utilities, will increasingly be connected through 5G. The risk of cybersecurity breaches on these resource systems could potentially have significant repercussions for communities’ and their human rights.
- Network segmentation and differentiation: Segmented and private networks will be used more by companies and government. This is expected to include mining operations, smart factories and mission critical networks for law enforcement agencies, to name just a few examples. Enabling such networks creates a more direct link to potential negative impacts as a result of company or government actions.
- Network surveillance and shutdowns: 5G may increase surveillance capabilities, including more precise geolocation data, which could be misused for illegitimate purposes. Networks could be shut down in more discrete ways, for example specific segments targeting geographies, and providing tools for governments to target specific groups.
- Broader societal impacts: An uneven rollout of 5G between geographical regions or within nations or even more locally in a given area may lead to, or exacerbate, a digital divide and drive widening inequality between populations. Issues related to trustworthy AI, such as bias, transparency and human oversight will also increase with the rollout of 5G.
Taking action and using leverage
According to international frameworks, a company is expected to use its leverage where it is involved in with a human rights impact, together with one or more third parties, or where an impact is otherwise directly linked to its operations, products, or services. Leverage in this context, is a company’s ability to influence the behavior of others.
Given that the potential impact areas connected to 5G involve actors across the ICT ecosystem, a company’s ability to use leverage is crucial.
Leverage is at the heart of what companies can realistically be expected to do when faced with complex human rights challenges.
While a dominant or influential commercial position in a business relationship is likely to help a company’s ability to use leverage, it is important not to consider leverage in purely commercial terms.
Many companies are likely to face situations in which they lack such a commercial position and need to think creatively about how to build sufficient leverage.
In determining what action to take, companies can consider, in consultation with stakeholders, different types of leverage and select what type (or combination) could be most effective given a specific human rights risk in a specific situation.
Different types of leverage can include:
- Traditional commercial leverage: activities a company routinely undertakes in commercial relationships, such as contractual requirements.
- Broader business leverage: activities that are not routine or typical in commercial relationships, such as capacity building, peer-learning initiatives, and so on.
- Leverage through bilateral engagement: engaging bilaterally with external players, such as governments, business peers, an international organization, or a civil society organization.
- Leverage through multi-stakeholder collaboration: collective action with business peers, governments, international organizations and/or civil society organizations.
It can also be helpful to identify specific moments in establishing and maintaining a business relationship when there may be a particular opportunity to exercise leverage, for example during contract negotiations, when acting on provisions of verification or monitoring requirements, contract renewals or providing upgrades and maintenance, or when a grievance is processed.
A proactive approach to addressing human rights risks
The above-mentioned impact areas to a large extent cut across the ICT industry. While individual company responsibility is crucial, the human rights challenges surrounding ICT must also be addressed through a multi-stakeholder approach.
A single actor in the ICT ecosystem will not be able to effectively mitigate the full range of risks associated with 5G technology on its own.
Companies in the ICT ecosystem need to proactively engage with issues that can lead to adverse human rights impacts as a result of their operations, products, services and business relationships.
The sooner you identify risks, the better you can manage them. Preventing and addressing impacts requires influencing others, including through collaboration. Identifying which stakeholder to collaborate with early on will enable companies to build long-lasting partnerships that are able to act quickly when new issues and risks arise.
Such partnerships also play a crucial role in defining respective responsibilities. Each player in the ICT ecosystem will have different opportunities to act, and thereby contribute to effective prevention and mitigation of impacts. Only through shared learning, collective, and transparent actions will some of the more complex challenges in the industry be effectively addressed.
Ericsson’s 5G human rights assessment
The rollout of 5G is currently the main focus for the telecom industry and, as a key player in the rollout, Ericsson has an important role to play in identifying issues and building awareness across the industry.
That is why we recently published a human rights impact assessment report, based on a comprehensive assessment methodology, extensive research, and internal and external stakeholder consultations.
The report further analyses the severity of potential impacts, who is impacted, how Ericsson is connected, and the actions needed to mitigate the risk.
Many of the identified impact areas touch upon cross-cutting themes and issues that need a centralized and coordinated effort. In order to address human rights risks, Ericsson has embedded human rights considerations across our value chain.
The report provides further details on Ericsson’s efforts to manage the impact areas addressed above. Examples of actions taken include our zero fatalities target, ensuring privacy by design when developing products and solutions, addressing potential misuse of technology through due diligence measures as part of our sales engagements, applying trustworthy AI principles and building leverage to mitigate risks through stakeholder collaborations, as well as a wide range of additional targeted measures.
Given that we are still in the early stages of the 5G rollout, we will also need to identify additional actions as we go, and potential new risk emerge. I am pleased that we have invested in bringing together the materials that give a baseline for understanding the breadth of issues under the broad headline of 5G and human rights. By doing so we are well positioned to respond to risks and prevent actual impacts from occurring.
The aim of the assessment is to be a starting point for further engagement and learning. Customers, suppliers, civil society organizations, investors and other stakeholders are invited to reach out and engage in a constructive dialogue to find joint ways of working on existing issues, as well as raise concerns regarding topics that have not yet been covered.
I believe that this assessment can form a strong foundation and starting point for the ICT industry to jointly establish a comprehensive approach to addressing human rights risks and inspire others to conduct similar assessments based on their operations and experiences.
By effectively mitigating and addressing human rights risks, we can truly leverage the positive impacts the ICT industry brings.
Read the full report: 5G Human Rights Assessment
Listen to Ericsson News Podcast episode on 5G and human rights.
Read more about Ericsson’s approach to human rights.
Like what you’re reading? Please sign up for email updates on your favorite topics.Subscribe now
At the Ericsson Blog, we provide insight to make complex ideas on technology, innovation and business simple.