While MTN has always been categorical in its stated commitment to the core values and principles of the new South Africa, when operating in other countries which do not uphold those same democratic values, it has become an ethical dilemma. File picture: Reuters
While MTN has always been categorical in its stated commitment to the core values and principles of the new South Africa, when operating in other countries which do not uphold those same democratic values, it has become an ethical dilemma. File picture: Reuters

The ethical dilemmas of cellphone companies operating under authoritarian regimes

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jul 25, 2021

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As cellphones, text messages and video calls have taken over the way we communicate with one another, ethical issues have emerged for cellphone operators. Particularly companies that work in countries where governments demand information on subscribers, often times with a view to monitoring dissidents and opposition activists.

Telecommunications have become a powerful tool for such governments to use in cracking down on democratic activities. This puts cellphone operators that want to maintain a commitment to human rights and civil liberties between a rock and a hard place.

South Africa’s own cellphone operator MTN has been one of the biggest corporate successes in the post-apartheid era, and has become one of the world’s leading emerging markets’ telecommunications companies. It is believed to be the eighth largest telecommunications company in the world, with over 273 million subscribers.

While MTN has always been categorical in its stated commitment to the core values and principles of the new South Africa, when operating in other countries which do not uphold those same democratic values, it has become an ethical dilemma, especially when the company is pressured to capitulate to the demands of those governments.

MTN has previously said, “Given South Africa’s own recent history and struggle against apartheid, the centrality of civil rights is at the core of our culture as a company and as individuals.” The company has further said, “One of our core values is respect for human rights and privacy rights of people in all markets in which we operate. We oppose abuse of such rights by any party, including governments.”

MTN currently operates in 22 countries, including in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia and Uganda. But in some of those countries the governments have a controlling stake in the MTN subsidiary, and have demanded that their intelligence agencies be given subscriber details, including the location data of subscribers, and their call and SMS histories. They have subsequently intercepted and recorded the communications of subscribers. In a number of cases, activists claim that after intelligence agencies have been provided with their data, they were arrested and tortured, and some have disappeared altogether.

MTN has said that it uses subscriber data to help it profile and market to its customer base, and that such data was never supposed to be used to identify and track the activities of individuals. But that did happen, especially during rallies or anti-government protests. But MTN accepts that there are ethical complexities around telecommunications in this new digital environment, and the potential is there for their manipulation for unethical means. MTN has indicated that it is keen to work with international bodies to construct clearer international standards.

MTN is obviously not the only cellphone operator that is faced with these challenges, and needs to find ways to protect their subscribers rather than expose them to abuse by their own governments. But this is easier said than done.

In a country like Eswatini, the government owns 41% of the MTN Eswatini subsidiary, and King Mswati III owns 10%. The Swazi Solidarity Network (SSN) has accused the government of tapping phone calls and intercepting text messages with MTN’s help, and has gone as far as to raise this issue with Cosatu.

MTN has responded to such allegations saying that, “MTN remains politically impartial in all its operations, including in Swaziland and does not subscribe to any political party, movement or affiliation.” But even during the recent unrest and protests in Eswatini, opposition activists continue to allege that MTN collaborates with the government to monitor their phone calls and block access to the internet.

The reality is that MTN networks can be shut down by regimes seeking to clamp down on the opposition, and this puts the onus on cellphone operators to balance profits with human rights. But where the government in which MTN operates has a controlling share of the subsidiary, it makes it even more difficult to live up to the creed that the company will protect the privacy and rights of their subscribers.

MTN has often used the marketing phrase “Venturing where others fear to tread”. But having the courage to take on the risks associated with operating in emerging markets means companies also have to navigate the potential reputational damage that comes with operating in states that have a democratic deficit, and in which companies are pressured to do unsavoury things.

The greatest challenge for the future is for companies like MTN to collaborate with other international cellphone operators in developing red lines which they are not prepared to cross when operating under authoritarian regimes. The sad reality is that there will always be companies that flout such standards in the race to put profits before people.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.

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