Telecommunications companies, or telcos, while not as frequently mentioned in media as their Big Tech counterparts, wield immense power. Telcos are primarily responsible for connecting people and networks, serving as the main access point to the internet, text messaging, and voice communication for billions of people. Their power stems not only from their critical services but also from their intricate governmental ties and the precise data they hold on individuals.
Governments exercise a significant influence over telcos, often utilizing them as political and strategic tools, particularly in authoritarian regimes. For instance, governments can force telcos to implement orders that infringe on human rights, such as network shutdowns, especially during crucial events like elections or protests. Telcos face a dilemma; if they comply, they jeopardize their subscribers’ rights. If they don’t, they risk their operational rights, assets, and workforce.
Beyond governmental control, telcos can also instigate threats by following in Big Tech’s footsteps. They employ tactics such as traffic-shaping practices, aiming to prioritize some services or content over others in collusion with Big Tech. This approach can hinder users’ right to access information, violate net neutrality principles, and negatively impact media pluralism and free expression.
The Digital Rights Rating Group (RDR) has included telcos in their Corporate Accountability Index since its inception in 2015, aiming to emphasize their significant role in respecting and promoting human rights. This year, to focus more on the distinct characteristics and human rights risks presented by telcos, the RDR Index has been split into the Big Tech Scorecard and the Telco Giants Scorecard. The goal is to encourage transparency, inspire alignment with human rights standards, and provide a roadmap for companies to effect positive change.