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Tech Start-Ups & Human Rights: Four Lessons

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Last month the Yahoo! Business and Human Rights Program convened a 'User First' meeting aimed at tech start-ups to educate them about the challenges to privacy and free speech they will inevitably face.

I moderated a panel on lessons from companies who had faced such challenges. Speakers included Tumblr, who bowed to pressure from a mobile app platform and blocked some tags that included adult content, including 'gay'; Skype, whose former joint venture partner in China was found to be storing and censoring text chats; Yahoo!, who complied with Chinese government requests for a journalist's account information, leading to his arrest and detention; and CloudFlare, who faced criticism for providing services to controversial websites.

The takeaways for companies:

  1. The question is not 'whether,' but 'when.' Assume that your company will get caught up in a crisis when you least expect it. All of the crises were triggered by third parties, rather than an action the company took.
  2. Clarify your core mission and customers. For all of the companies, the challenge triggered deep discussions about their most fundamental values and customers, which provided clarity on what to do.
  3. Have policies and procedures in place. Crises unfold quickly, and whomever is in the seat at the critical moment needs to know how to respond. The panel discussed how many of these crises could not have been prevented (see #1), so the only course of action is to mitigate and prepare.
  4. Err on the side of transparency, internal and external. Despite #3 above, as one panelist pointed out there's not always a policy fix for a human issue. One panelist said their engineers took action without consulting colleagues who communicate with external stakeholders, which made the problem worse than it might have been. Know who needs to be at the table and how you'll communicate with them.

As one panelist pointed out, as long as there are repressive governments (or, frankly, democratic ones too), there will be challenges to privacy and free expression. Companies of every size and stage should prepare themselves; the Global Network Initiative, the U.N. Guiding Principles on business and human rights, and BSR (where I'm a human rights advisor) all provide useful guidance on how to do so.

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