New Publications signal a turning point for the use of mobile and ICT in humanitarian crises and the protection of human rights

The past month has witnessed the publication of a number of ground-breaking papers related to the use of mobile technology in natural disasters, complex emergencies and human rights.

In recent years, the power of mobile in facilitating social movements, electoral transparency, displacement monitoring and conflict early warning have been highlighted.  Simultaneously, mobile network operators have faced increased scrutiny around the potential for networks to be appropriated for surveillance, censorship or other uses that may violate internationally-recognised privacy and human rights norms within these same contexts.

Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy

In recognition of this risk, several mobile network operators have united to produce a set of guidelines and principles intended to provide a framework for corporate processes and policy design to mitigate and respond to misuse of the network. The founding members of Industry Dialogue Group, a group of mobile industry members — including TeliaSonera, Vodafone, Alcatel-Lucent, France Telecom-Orange, Nokia-Siemens Networks, Millicom, Telefónica and Telenor – have been working together over the past two years to establish principles to advance and protect the human rights and privacy of end-users of ICT and mobile technology in particular. The Industry Dialogue Group also announced a two-year collaboration with GNI to create a platform to discuss and operationalize the guidelines.

Importantly, these principles highlight the tensions mobile operators have experienced between the responsibility of the state to uphold international human rights obligations, and the responsibility of corporations to meet both domestic and international legal and rights obligations where they operate. The need for transparency in capturing and reporting attempted or successful violation of rights and privacy is also identified.  These principles represent a significant first step in helping the mobile industry face challenges now, and in the future.

Read the principles

Humanitarianism in the Network Age

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also published a forward looking report this month titled “Humanitarianism in the Network Age.”  The report takes as its point of departure the need for recognising information as a basic component of humanitarian aid and outlines strategies to make this concept operational. The proliferation of mobile and other ICTs in the “network age” have ushered in shifts in power dynamics, interaction and information flows which have significant implications on the humanitarian system. The paper proposes that adaptation in organisational practice, funding and culture is required to embrace new opportunities, and face the challenges that open information and two-way communications present.   The paper recognises that new types of partnerships needed to deliver ICT based services in a humanitarian context are not always easy, but argue that those who fail to embrace them risk being dis-intermediated.  Fundamentally, the report recognises that individuals and communities themselves are already harnessing their connectedness in new and powerful ways to better control their own response, and the assistance they receive.  This report lays an excellent foundation to encourage new understandings and partnerships between humanitarian agencies, government, the private sector and end-users to ensure that life-saving information is accessible, inclusive and shared freely.

Read the report

New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict

Thirdly, UNDP, USAID and the International Peace Institute released a report on “New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict.” The report offers a series of case studies where technology has been used to prevent violence and conflict in different contexts around the world. The authors identify the recurring challenge of the warning-response gap, and highlight that while in many contexts, new technology (such as big data, mobile, social media) proved effective, in some cases their impact was limited by a lack of actionable data, risks to privacy and safety of users and in some cases, the use of technology to mobilise violence rather than mitigate it. Research into the impact of technology on crisis early warning and prevention is at a nascent state, but the report offers key considerations and guidelines to maximising impact and mitigating unintended consequences.

Read the report

Together, these resources offer a significant step forward for framing the role, risks and opportunities of mobile and related technologies in crisis. Collectively they demonstrate that a significant shift is underway in how technology is being used (and mis-used) in conflict and natural disasters and that new ways of thinking and new partnerships are inevitable at both a systemic and operational level. Fundamentally, these reports highlight that in the digital age, access to information and communication need to be recognised as fundamental rights and a basic humanitarian need. The GSMA Disaster Response Programme looks forward to further research and discussions and playing a role in this dynamic and critical field.

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