Thomson Reuters is Canada’s canary in the coal mine for tech sector human rights risk

As more media firms become data providers, with big government contracts, a reckoning on human rights is coming, say Emma Pullman and Paul Finch.

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Canadian multimedia giant Thomson Reuters’ ongoing contracts with the US Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continue to be cause for concern for any investor who cares about human rights risk, including all signatories to the Principles for Responsible Investment. A dual-listed company on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, Thomson Reuters has been making its software available to ICE since 2015, where the agency uses it to track and arrest immigrants on an unprecedented scale. The ramping up of a private data-led approach to immigration policy enforcement is a key part of the process of fulfilling Donald Trump’s Fortress America approach to migration. By using private data providers such as Thomson Reuters to build software systems that support a widening migration control dragnet, governments in the US and other jurisdictions are able to avoid the need to comply with basic civil and human rights obligations that would otherwise prevent them from collecting this personal information directly. As the outsourcing of this work continues and expands, investors have a pivotal role to play to ensure companies, including Thomson Reuters, are not abetting serious rights violations as part of their ongoing business operations.

A giant with the power to change

Thomson Reuters is one of Canada’s and the world’s best known media companies and its rapid pivot to become a tech and data broker is part of a wider media industry shift happening at other companies such as Facebook and Google. The company’s launch of a Change Program this year signaled a ratcheting up of its ambition for this business shift. As the company focuses increasingly on data analytics, machine learning and other services to grow revenues, contracts similar to the ICE and US Department of Homeland Security deals will continue to expand. Reborn as a technology business, we believe Thomson Reuters lacks the human risk mitigation safeguards its competitors are already beginning to employ. The report we are asking for will address this competency gap and asks the company to build capacity to understand and limit the risks of adverse human rights events that could cause serious material risks for investors.

Reborn as a technology business, we believe Thomson Reuters lacks the human risk mitigation safeguards its competitors are already beginning to employ

Reporting on human right risk in ICE dealings is an important first step

Thomson Reuters has responded to our concerns by indicating that there is not yet a uniform approach to addressing human rights risk, and as such has not adopted one. However, Thomson Reuters’ own technology industry peers including Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Wolters Kluwer, RELX (owner of Thomson Reuters’ competitor, LexisNexis) and have each adopted a range of different human rights risk management frameworks to address the unique changes in the tech landscape. Each of these approaches are aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – high-level principles that require human rights due diligence and engagement with affected stakeholders. Thomson Reuters has yet to take this first critical step. 

This year’s resolution asks the Board to produce a human rights risk report identifying potential human rights risks as the company speeds up its transition to become a technology and AI-led business, and to compare the Thomson Reuters’ approach to human rights risk assessment undertaken by other prominent technology companies. This action is important and achievable. 

When we first filed this proposal, we were reminded that it would never pass given the founding Thomson Family’s two-third controlling share in the company. But we did not let that stop us. Our similar resolution received nearly 30% of non-controlled votes in favour, and sent a powerful message to this company. This year, investor support is growing, and both Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis have recommended shareholders back the proposal. As a result, other prominent institutional investors have now joined in supporting this resolution. But we need more investors to pile in on this simple but powerful request. By asking Thomson Reuters to conduct a fulsome analysis of human rights risk, investors can communicate clear expectations for the incorporation of human rights risk assessment across the tech sector. As more media giants pivot to expand data services, their role in immigration enforcement globally is likely to expand. It’s time to ask Thomson Reuters to set a bar for human rights risk assessments, just like other technology companies have done.

Supporting this resolution will send a signal for other media companies that a data-led business model must include a systematic approach to human rights due diligence. 

Emma Pullman is the Capital Markets Advisor for the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union

 Paul Finch is the union’s Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer