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Danil Bekturganov: Telecommunication companies and human rights

“Research data have shown that the Internet in Kazakhstan is not free at all; and one reason for this lack of freedom is the reluctance of telecommunication companies to meet the criteria of organizations supporting and promoting human rights”, said Danil Bekturganov, President of PF “The Civil Expertise” (Almaty, Kazakhstan), in an article written exclusively for cabar.asia.
bekturganovThe world is changing. The technological breakthrough, which perhaps is not so noticeable for us, the inhabitants of the periphery of the world, has changed the global balance irrevocably. Economic giants based on oil, gas and other mineral resources begin to belong to the past; industries that did not exist 20 years ago rapidly reach the heights of success. The days when the richest man in the world was the Sultan of Brunei are gone. Now his oil wealth does not constitute a tenth of the capital of the giants of information and telecommunications business. The future belongs to them, although its bright prospects depend on many factors. Let’s look at one of them – the impact of the fast-growing IT sector on social development, in particular, on its cornerstone – human rights.
In today’s information world, the issue of freedom to receive and spread information is, perhaps, one of the most controversial. Information is no longer just the information, a set of some knowledge of facts, ideas and events; information has become money, information has become a weapon, information has become the foundation on which our modern civilization is built on. Moreover, today, there are much more channels through which people exchange information: a giant segment of online and social media were added to the traditional print media, radio and television. Of course, governments are well aware of the power of information. Naturally, in this situation, the desire of governments to both monitor and “dispense” information, to filter something or, on the contrary, to strengthen in the information flow is understandable. The worldwide experience has shown that there is a touching unanimity in an effort of governments to monitor and keep track of the information exchange; democracies in general operate in a similar way as the authoritarian states, developed countries copy the practices of developing countries, and vice versa. A good example is the famous “Case of Wikileaks». What is the role of telecommunications companies in this “information arms race”?
Let’s start with the rights whose realization in the modern world is impossible without the participation of telecommunication companies. This is, firstly, the right to seek, receive and distribute information, which is regulated by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Internet Service Providers, in fact, are the only companies that help realize this right. Secondly, it is the right to privacy and private family life and correspondence: the article 12 of the same Declaration. The ability to exercise this right in modern life is also very much dependent on the goodwill of telecommunication companies – given the rapid development of “cloud” technologies, more and more people store their data not on physical media at home, but in the “cloud”, the access to which can be at any moment interrupted or limited by the company that provides Internet. And thirdly, which is also important, the Declaration has a norm, speaking about the proportionality of restrictions of rights and freedoms; it is the second part of Article 28. It states that everyone, exercising his/her rights and freedoms, shall be subject only to those limitations that are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and overall welfare in a democratic society. Do the telecommunications companies observe that balance? (1)
I would clarify that these issues arise not only in developing countries. The issues of implementation of fundamental rights and freedoms on the Internet are equally relevant in developed countries, which are considered a benchmark in the pursuit of human rights principles. Perhaps, because of quite objective reasons, the question of the impact of telecommunications companies on human rights is not yet in the priorities for the world’s leading human rights organizations. However, the first steps in this direction have already been made.
Here, we should note the initiative of RankingDigitalRights (RDR), which is trying to implement a methodology for monitoring and assessing the impact of telecommunications companies on human rights. The RDR has developed a standard, which, using 31 indicators, monitors the disclosure of corporate policies and practices that affect the realization of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. In November 2015, the RDR announces the presentation of a report – the first study on this subject, in which such giants of the sector, such as AT & T, Orange, Vodafone, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google, participate, in total – 16 world’s largest telecommunications and Internet companies. (2 ) In addition to the RDR, Internet human rights issues are raised by international organizations such as Internews, ISoc, and PrivateInterests. Even the UN notes the need for recognition of the right of access to the Internet as one of human rights. The issues of realization of rights on the Internet have caused a wide public resonance in many countries: remember the recent protests in Hungary against the introduction of “tax on the Internet” and protests in the US against the adoption by Congress of SOPA and PIPA laws, toughening the measures of restraint of copyright violation.
This is the situation in the world. What is happening in Kazakhstan?
In 2014, the Kazakh segment of the Internet has become an object of several studies. Research “AGAINST”, conducted by Internews Global Network, determined the perception of surveillance and monitoring in the Kazakhstan segment of the Internet; the research “Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia”, conducted by Private International, demonstrated the technical capabilities of the Central Asian states to control the Internet. The results of these researches are indicative enough and deserve dwelling on them in detail.
Project AGAINST (Advanced Global Analysis of ICT Network Surveillance Technology Transfer) is an independent expert analysis of perception and impact on civil society of the Republic of Kazakhstan of both legal and illegal facts of control over talks, movements, correspondence and statements of activists through technical means of tapping and monitoring, and other methods of surveillance and recording. The project investigated the legal possibilities of the surveillance and monitoring on the Internet, tracked media and social media reports on this topic, conducted in-depth interviews with experts – representatives of civil society, journalists and human rights activists. The findings are disappointing: the legislation has a steady trend towards toughening, the number of publications on the topic of surveillance in networks is artificially reduced, and the accounts of the complainants against the surveillance on social networks are blocked or hacked. The absolute majority of the interviewed experts believed in the presence of covert surveillance of publications, chats and activities in networks. Thus, the study confirms the existence of violations of the right to privacy of correspondence and private life. In addition, the study identified and documented facts of blocking a number of Internet resources in Kazakhstan, and this blocking is carried out by the chief provider and monopolist of telecommunication services – Kazakhtelecom. For example, social network Live Journal, news portals Republic, Ferghana and others are blocked in Kazakhstan. This, in turn, shows the existence of violations of the right to seek, receive and impart information. (3)
Research “Private Interests”: Monitoring Central Asia”, conducted by Private International, has shown that the authorities of the Central Asian states have technical abilities to monitor any activity on the Internet, block networks, block IP address, tap voice messages in Internet telephony, tap mobile communications, as well as can quickly identify, with the help of technical means, the physical address and location of the subscriber. With regard to Kazakhstan, it is a system of IOSA (abbreviation -Investigative Operational Search Activities), consisting of monitoring centers and control panels in all major cities of the country. The study highlights that in line with Kazakh law, telecommunication companies of Kazakhstan do not have the right to take-up the communications networks that are not equipped with the equipment of IOSA. In addition, the study found the developers and suppliers of this equipment. As this equipment consists of relatively complex software and hardware systems, it could not be designed and manufactured in the countries of Central Asia. It was found that the main suppliers of equipment for the surveillance and monitoring on the Internet are companies Verint Israel and NICE Systems. In addition to these companies, the equipment is supplied by HP, Trovicor, Utimaco, and a number of Russian IT companies. The formal purpose of installation on the connection networks of this equipment is the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking and organized crime. However, the study emphasizes that the main customers of the equipment are notorious National Security Committee of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, which cannot boast of success in the fight against terrorism, but, at the same time, are widely known for persecution of dissidents. (4)
The results of these studies demonstrate that the Internet in Kazakhstan is not free; and one reason for this lack of freedom is the reluctance of telecommunications companies to meet the criteria for organizations that support and promote human rights. In fairness, it should be noted that the business as a whole is not focused on the protection of rights and freedoms; it is not its objective. Unfortunately, the mechanism, which would force or motivate the business to pay attention to human rights in their activities does not exist. All of the modern mechanisms of corporate social responsibility of business are based more on the good will of corporations, rather than on some effectual image aspect, which could positively influence the volatility of corporate assets, or on any legal requirements. So far, such image and legislative requirements do not exist, it is very difficult to change the situation, and the study made by the Coalition Azat Internet, held in Kazakhstan in 2015, confirms that.
The study of the Coalition Azat Internet / Free Internet is based on the methodology proposed by international project Ranking Digital Rights. 11 largest telecommunication companies in Kazakhstan were selected for this study, including the monopolist Kazakhtelecom and the “big four” mobile operators in Kazakhstan – Beeline, Kcell, Altel and Tele2. The study emphasizes that three of the four member companies of the “big four” have foreign shareholders, which would pre-suppose greater openness and availability of any policies and practices aimed at protecting the rights of users and /or subscribers. Questionnaires with RDR indicators were sent to the address of these companies: Does the company assess the impact on human rights protection? Does it protect its subscribers from surveillance and monitoring? Does it conduct the examination of complaints? Does it protest in the case of claims by state authorities of blocking or restricting access to some Internet resources, etc. There were 15 questions in total. No company responded to the questionnaire. The main argument of failure of filling in the questionnaire was that the company operated under the laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and it was not going to assess the impact of their activities on human rights. However, the Coalition conducted a desk study of the sites of the companies to identify the links (in open access) to corporate policies and practices related to human rights. The Coalition states that only three of the eleven companies have such materials on their sites, showing the companies’ commitment to the right to freedom of expression and privacy; however, as noted in the study, these statements are purely declarative and are not supported by real actions. (5)
Formally, the study did not bring the expected results. However, in this case, one can say that no result is also a result. As an analogy, I can give an example of environmental impact assessments in the 1970s, when a public request for such examinations was just emerging, and no one could have predicted that the presence of the examination of the environmental impact would be a prerequisite for doing any business. Certain hopes are also related to the expected publication in November 2015 of a report of the Ranking Digital Rights study about the human rights impact of the companies-world leaders of IT market. Perhaps, having widely distributed this report among telecommunications companies in Kazakhstan, the Coalition will be able to convince local companies to follow a more open and responsible approach to the issue of the impact assessment on human rights.
The question of interest in the problem of government agencies represented by relevant ministries and agencies remains open. Given the lack of awareness and interest of the state bodies in the issue of human rights, it is difficult to count on any effective support on their part. However, the situation could change, if the question of assessing the impact on human rights is linked to the issues of corporate social responsibility of business, and the requirement for completion of the procedure of impact assessment activities (not necessarily only telecommunications activities) on human rights is strengthened at the legislative level.
It is necessary to touch on the topic of public interest to the theme of the impact of the telecommunications business on human rights. No special study on this subject was conducted in Kazakhstan. However, the theme of the impact of telecommunications and Internet business on human rights, or, in general, of corporate social responsibility, is gaining relevance day by day. There are several reasons for that, and the most basic is the rapid commercialization of the Internet. People do not just make purchases at popular online stores and have fun online; more and more people are now working online, and the issue of confidentiality of data is more closely intertwined with the right to privacy and the right to access to information. And here, the issues of proportionality of restrictions on access to information become really relevant. As long as the blocking of some Internet resources does not bring any direct damages to citizens, the problem is not visible; however, should the situation change a little, for example, in case of blocking any business resource, damages can be disastrous.
After all, the whole sector is the leader of the growth of the economy of Kazakhstan. So, if in 2012, the incomes of the telecommunication companies only for the provision of mobile communication and mobile Internet accounted for 105.56 billion tenge, in 2013, those incomes were already 136 950 000 000, in 2014 – 169.04 billion, and only for the period from January to April 2015, it was nearly 64 billion, and there is no doubt that the annual income for the provision of mobile services will exceed 200 billion tenge. (6) (in brackets, it may be noted that the total dividend income of the state company KazMunaiGaz amounted to about 166 billion tenge in 2013. (7)
The telecommunications business is the only sector of the economy, which shows the growth even during the crisis caused by the fall in world energy prices. It is possible that in the future, telecommunications companies will become the engine, which will help the economy of Kazakhstan to cope with the consequences of the crisis.
The impact of telecommunications companies on human rights exists and is becoming increasingly important with the growth of the sector. This problem affects the quality of life, therefore it requires attention on the part of civil society organizations, the business community and government agencies, because, besides the impact on human rights, this issue affects the situation with national security and combating crime. This problem can’t be solved only by the efforts of civil society and business community. To address it, the participation of state bodies is obligatory. The problem must be viewed in the context of the overall approach to corporate social responsibility of companies, however, it requires separate development and a methodology. Given the relative “youth” of this sector and of the evaluation methodology, its solution is a serious challenge and a promising direction for the activities of civil society organizations.

Author: Danil Bekturganov, President of PF “Civil Expertise”

The views of the author may not necessarily represent those of cabar.asia