Today, communications are woven into the lives of virtually every UK citizen. Everyone expects instant connectivity - however, whenever and wherever they want. British people spend more time online than anyone else in Europe and spend more time each day using media and communications than they do sleeping.
The internet has been overwhelmingly positive and empowering, connecting people to other people and information they would not have had before. Millions are communicating, finding a voice, realising their potential.
But the internet can also be used for distasteful, or illegal activity – like sharing images of child sexual abuse or content that fuels hate, extremism or radicalisation. This raises tensions between the right to open, unrestricted communications and the need to promote safety and security. What part should companies like BT play in making those decisions?
People’s communications generate vast amounts of data on our network. Our customers expect us to be guardians of that information. Yet governments expect access to it to keep society safe. How do we maintain our customers’ trust when carrying out the role required by government?
Privacy and free expression have long been protected under international human rights standards. Governments must protect their citizens’ human rights but also consider their responsibility to maintain a safe and stable society that - for example - protects its most vulnerable members.
BT has a long-standing commitment to respect human rights. This is why we are issuing this report: to explain how we respect the human rights which through our actions (or the actions of others) we might impact the most.
The issues are complex. People have many different views.
But fundamentally we support and respect individuals’ rights to privacy and free expression, even as we accept that sometimes there need to be limitations on those rights, as international human rights standards allow. Where those limitations surface, they should be clearly delineated within strong legal frameworks. They should come with the right checks and balances.
As a company, we need of course to comply with the law, but when there is an opportunity to shape it, we take that opportunity and make clear any human rights concerns we have. That’s just part of being a responsible and ethical business.
Sometimes we’ve led the case for change. We were the first communications provider in the world to create a system to block child sexual abuse images online (a system now used or copied around the globe). Other times we’ve challenged laws to make sure restrictions on free expression are clear.
But in other areas it can be more difficult: government investigatory powers are complex, wide-ranging and often difficult to work through. We want to contribute to a constructive debate about how these powers sit with people’s human rights into the future.