Investors with €6.4 trillion in assets under management have joined forces in the latest attempt to put tech giants on notice over their management of human rights risks and impacts.
The Council on Ethics of the Swedish AP Funds are coordinating the initiative, which boasts signatories including Amundi, Aviva Investors, AXA Investment Managers, Schroders and Railpen. The groups aims to engage Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and Tencent over a three-year period.
The main goal of the engagement will be to ensure that the firms take concrete measures to address operational and human rights risks pertaining to their products and business models, and to encourage more transparent reporting on the related impacts and efforts.
In a statement, the group pointed to longstanding concerns that many online platforms have business models which centre on maximising interactions with their content and serve users with information they are interested in.
For example, the statement said that the spreading of malicious or untrue content can cause far-reaching damage.
In addition, apart from jeopardising individual human rights, especially those of vulnerable groups, “hate speech and misinformation can have system-level consequences such as hyper-polarisation, discrimination, violence and erosion of democracy”, it said.
Magdalena Håkansson, chair of the Council on Ethics, said: “We, together with this investor group, recognise the systemic nature of the challenges related to online content, and in addition to affecting company-level improvements hope to raise broader discussion and awareness of the risks with the services of these tech companies.”
Håkansson told Responsible Investor that the engagement methodology will include regular assessments of progress and impact, “the results of which will be used to consider potential additional stewardship tools, targets and avenues”.
She added that, given that regulation and public policy play an important part in tackling these systemic issues, the initiative will closely follow and analyse related developments.
This is not the first time investors have attempted to engage tech behemoths on social issues, and content in particular.
Following the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack, New Zealand Super Fund (NZSF) set up a shareholder campaign with fellow state-backed investors the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Government Superannuation Fund, National Provident Fund and Kiwi Wealth.
The initiative, which counted 103 member investors with $13.5 trillion under management and included big players such as Aviva, HSBC, Nomura and Northern Trust, aimed to ensure Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet strengthened controls to prevent live-streaming and dissemination of objectionable content.
When the engagement concluded in 2021, an external review of the programme noted the social media platforms had made “reasonable efforts” and “material progress” to reduce the spread of offensive or dangerous content, but that there was an unavoidable time delay before they could classify content as objectionable.
A key barrier to engagement with big tech is the industry’s preference for dual-class share structures and the outsize influence wielded by founders.
Last year, shareholder proposals on ESG topics at Amazon, Alphabet and Meta attracted strong support from investors but failed to gain a majority due to the firms’ share structures.
When asked how the investor group will attempt to learn and evolve from previous initiatives, Håkansson said the Council on Ethics had engaged with investors involved in ongoing or already concluded initiatives to “learn from and leverage their work, and to find out where more investor activity could be most helpful”.
She added that the group would look to cooperate with both investors and other stakeholders “whose objectives overlap with or complement those of this collaboration”.
Meanwhile, the focus areas and strategy for the engagement build on the investor expectations issued by the Council on Ethics and the Danish Institute of Human Rights in 2020, and have been designed to add value and bridge gaps in the space, she said.
A spokesperson for Tencent told RI: “Tencent is dedicated to building long-term relationships and maintaining ongoing dialogue with investors, on matters including our business and ESG initiatives.”