Venture capitalists are failing to do even the bare minimum to ensure their investments are not contributing to human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International.
In a report published on Friday, the organization dives into the complicity of venture capital firms in human rights abuses. In a survey of 53 of the world's largest venture capital firms and startup accelerations (and after a review of public records when available), the non-profit discovered only one firm "potentially" had human rights due diligence processes in place that met international standards set up by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The UN Guiding Principles, the report states, establish that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights and avoid causing or contributing to abuses. Furthermore, companies are expected to address and remediate any abuses, prevent or mitigate "adverse human impacts" caused by their business, and do all this even if the impact is not directly their fault.
In reality, however, most industries—but especially the VC industry, Amnesty argues—have little interest in doing any of this.
Eight of the companies surveyed said they conducted due diligence but could not provide enough information for Amnesty International to confirm the UN's standards were being met. For the vast majority of firms surveyed—44 out of the 53—there was no evidence of any human rights due diligence policy.
In the report, a few VC firms in particular are singled out for their role in funding and building surveillance systems: Lightspeed Venture Partners which invested in AnyVision, an Israeli-based facial surveillance company that was accused of targeting Palestinians in the West Bank; and Tiger Global Management, a VC firm that invested in SenseTime, a Chinese technology company that built facial surveillance programs targeting Uyghurs in China.
In a statement, AnyVision denied that it surveilled Palestinians in the West Bank and pointed out that a Microsoft audit did not substantiate the allegation, even though the tech giant terminated its relationship with AnyVision.
Tiger Global Management and Lightspeed Venture Partners did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
“VCs stand out in a sector that does not do a good job to begin with. They stand out in terms of just how little they care about human rights,” said Michael Kleinman, director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley Initiative. “I think it is simply a lack of will. These firms are incredibly powerful. It's not asking VC firms to do something that companies in other sectors are already doing. And so the idea that these incredibly powerful firms could not do this is laughable."
All this is compounded by the fact that, as Amnesty observers in this report and previous ones, some of the most successful business models are ones that center surveillance above all else. It is no surprise, then, that when VC-backed firms as large and successful as Google or Facebook draw the lion's share of their revenue from the same business models that venture capitalists and their firms are seeking to replicate the model elsewhere.
Human rights impacts also bleed into the sphere of labor rights, for example, as surveillance becomes an increasingly important mode of worker control for all sorts of firms, but especially gig companies.
"Algorithmic worker management and control systems have also had a severe negative impact on wages across the so-called 'gig economy,'" reads one December 2019 AI Now report on the impact of harmful AI systems on a variety of domains, including labor and human rights. "These platforms treat workers as subjects of constant experimentation, often in ways that destabilize their economic and even psychological security."
After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—a never-ending source of venture capital funding—ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, for a moment there seemed to be real concern within Silicon Valley about the venture capital industry’s lack of concern about ethics or morality. That, however, proved to be a performative act as Silicon Valley continued to take money from the capital flush sovereign wealth funds of countries like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. (VICE Media is opening an office in Saudi Arabia.)
“I think public pressure plays a critical role. It can bring attention to these companies or firms that are doing so poorly when it comes to human rights," Kleinman added. "The main pressure points, however, are the limited partners: pension funds, university and foundation endowments. When those institutions start to say they'll only invest in VC firms with adequate human rights due diligence policy, then you will see change."