ESG experts call on tech to protect abortion rights

Activist shareholders and ESG analysts speaking with city ​​cable selector We believe that the reversal of Roe v Wade in the US has further highlighted the contentious issue of tech company data rights, and that the time has come for ESG investors to step up their engagement.

Benjamin Chekroun, an ESG analyst at Candriam, said the issue is “only on the agenda” for sustainable investors, but his firm is already worried about risks arising from the new situation.

“The criminalization of abortion presents risks for all companies, because there will be operational, financial and reputational risks,” Chekroun said. city ​​cable selector. “But for technology companies, it’s introducing even bigger risks.”

The prosecution of abortion seekers in certain US states has already been made possible by tech companies sharing personal data with authorities, including a 2017 case when a Mississippi woman’s online search for abortion pills contributed to her being accused of killing her unborn child.

In early August, Meta drew public criticism after it was revealed that Facebook users’ information and messages about abortion pills were used to bring charges against a 17-year-old Nebraska girl and her mother.

With the overturning of Roe v Wade, human rights experts have warned that similar legal responses are likely to become widespread.

For this reason, Shelley Alpern, a veteran US-based activist shareholder and reproductive care policy engagement expert at Rhia Ventures, urges companies not to comply with officials in these cases.

‘We will urge companies not to cooperate with local state or federal officials who intend to prosecute or persecute women and birthers who choose to have abortions.

“I highly doubt these companies want to be in a position to hand over private health data that could be used to prosecute women or their providers,” Alpern said.

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She said companies that are seen as complying with the prosecution of someone undergoing a health service that most people in America support can create reputational risks.

“They need to understand that they are branding themselves as anti-abortionists and advocates of religious values, which could affect their results,” the Salem activist added.

For Alpern, the connection between protecting human rights and the role of big tech in a post-Roe v Wade world is now incredibly tense.

Conversation Encryption

Future risks of complicity among tech companies in abortion lawsuits have also fueled calls to limit the personal data they store.

The digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, recommends that technology companies respond by reducing data collection, employing end-to-end encryption, and ending behavioral and location tracking.

A similar call to action came from a group of US senators and members of Congress, who in May this year called on Google to limit the collection and retention of location-tracking data due to the risk of its being used. to prosecute people in areas where abortion is practiced. criminalized

Candriam’s Chekroun said the recent Meta scandal shows that investors will also need to be aware of the problem and talk to the companies they invest in about the reasons for storing personal data.

‘If that conversation was encrypted, or if it was destroyed, then the problem would not be there. We can see that there are some serious human rights consequences of storing personal data, rather than encrypting it.’

A legal and moral crossroads

Following public outrage over the use of Facebook messages in the Nebraska abortion trial, Meta announced earlier this month that it is on track to make end-to-end encryption the default setting for all calls and messages on Facebook. its Messenger platform in 2023.

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But for an industry whose main profit comes from selling personal information to third parties, stopping data collection is easier said than done.

‘From an ethical point of view, you want to have as little as possible to be misused or abused. But data is the main commodity of tech companies, so it’s very difficult to ask them to refrain from collecting it,” Chekroun said.

ESG-focused investor Jonas Kron, who worked with Alpern to file a shareholder proposal against TJX, which owns retailers like TJ Maxx, believes there is a case against maintaining the current model that relies on ad revenue.

‘Currently the business model is to sell advertising, which they charge based on the personal information they collect. Right now they are in the “information and personal data business”. And I think a lot of investors have to ask themselves if they’re okay with that.”

Kron wonders if this model is worth supporting, considering the increased risk of legal problems in the future.

These companies are in possession of data and the authorities know it.

“When you look at all the legal resources these companies have to expend to navigate the rule of law and civil liberties, at a time when people are questioning the long-term viability of relying on ad revenue, you have to ask yourself if Would it be better if they just didn’t collect this information in the first place?

‘Ultimately, why do companies have all this power? Maybe it would be better if they just didn’t collect this information,” Kron said.

For Kron, technology companies have reached a crossroads between siding with human rights or complying with the law. To protect civil liberties, tech companies will need to give up a portion of their profits and, indeed, change their entire business model, Kron said.

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‘Playing in Zuckerberg’s sandbox’

Kron said he believes Mark Zuckerberg’s majority stake in Meta severely reduces investor influence, which in this case amounts to one person having too much power over women’s rights.

“If Mark Zuckerberg one day decides to forgo huge profits by collecting less data, that would be a great result. However, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to be giving up any power. Investors with Meta stock need to reconcile themselves to the fact that if they hold stakes there, they are merely playing in Zuckerberg’s sandbox.”

But despite such obstacles, ESG investors are increasingly raising civil rights concerns with tech companies.

This includes Candriam, which in 2021 launched a collaborative engagement project with 51 companies on surveillance technology, and is currently seeking to create a public policy on reproductive health that could guide the company in upcoming seasons of representation.

Chekroun pointed out that shareholder proposals on ensuring workers’ reproductive rights have already been presented at three general meetings this season (at US retailers Walmart, Lowe’s and TJX) and that proposals calling for end-to-end encryption extreme and similar measures could reach the general meetings of technology companies. as soon as next year.

The implementation of so-called transparency reports, in which companies would publish reports on the number of data release requests they received from governments and the number of times they complied and failed to comply, is a solution that companies have begun to adopt in recent years. times, Kron said.

He added that it is still being resolved how they comply and in what circumstances they can back down.