Do companies need a Human Rights Officer?

10th May 2012

Reeling from revelations of 55,000 leaked passwords hacked from Twitter one day this week,  it was handy to be able to follow up with some good news about the microblogging site the next.

The company must have relished being cast in the role of customer rights champion, as it filed to quash a New York State court subpoena demanding access to the account of one of its users.

This specific case relates to a Twitter user called Malcolm Harris, being prosecuted for disorderly conduct in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protest on the Brooklyn Bridge last year. 

In a statement Twitter's lawyer, Ben Lee, said : "Twitter's terms of service make absolutely clear that its users 'own' their own content. Our filing with the court reaffirms our steadfast commitment to defending those rights for our users."

Under this interpretation, it means that the courts would have to produce a search warrant in order to access any personal data, as per the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Wanted: a Corporate Human Rights Officer

Great publicity and high praise for Twitter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) aside, the case highlights the onslaught of government pushing ever harder for control over electronic and online communications. 

It also shows a need for corporations to play a vital role to in their customers' fight for the rights of freedom of expression and private life – both of which are enshrined in the Human Rights Act over here in Europe.  It opens up the possibility of the corporation becoming  the last refuge for the individual against an increasingly prying state. Enter the era of the company Human Rights Officer.

The very nature of corporate entities would demand that the HRO be someone who can plot a fine diplomatic line between company loyalist and customer activist,  someone authorised to operate as critical friend to the corporation and advocate for the rights of its customers whenever threatened – advertently or otherwise – by the effects of corporate and legislative process.

While working at Microsoft during the mid-90s the U.S tech blogger Robert Scoble unofficially played such a role when he personally took on CEO Steve Ballmer to question the software giant's decision not to back an anti-discrimination legislation.  At the time, Scoble  indeed described Microsoft's stance as "a human rights issue."

Having it both ways?

Fast-forward 17 years and other potential human rights issues abound, this time repeatedly around the subject of electronic surveillance.  One such issue is the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) currently winding its way through US Congress, dividing opinion en route. It's the surviving one of two web-related bills proposed in the last six months, and an issue that would test any HRO.

If passed CISPA would allow government agencies and industry to gather and swap customer data, ostensibly to prevent cyber attacks or breaches of cyber security.  Civil rights campaigners and indeed the Office of the U.S President oppose the bill, citing insufficient protection of individuals' privacy.

But that hasn't stopped the likes of Facebook and Microsoft  supporting CISPA, their reasoning being that the onus for regulating users then falls on the State rather than the industry.  And as Facebook approaches IPO, one is free to speculate on the degree to which the guiding Wall Street banks could be steering their charge away from socially progressive, civil liberty-related impulses and towards more hardnosed dollar-oriented ones.

And if that is the case, for how long could Facebook sustain that path post-IPO, by which time the make-up of its investor base will begin too look much more like its users than the tentacles of a "Vampire Squid"?

Soon the level of customer interest in a web-based company's products and services (and therefore its profitability levels) could be increasingly linked to the degree of its willingness to protect said customers from being ridden roughshod over by government.

Twitter knows this, having begun a corporate campaign to protect users long before this week's court filing.  Maybe it's already hired a HRO on the quiet.


More on Mindful Money

Can Yahoo learn from its mistakes?

Warren Buffett thinks Facebook and Apple are 'too risky'

Mobile technology: What the west can learn from the rest

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