The telco has issued the same statement repeatedly since legal charity Reprieve complained about its contract to supply a major trunk line for the US global military network under OECD rules last July.
It sent the statement most recently to UK officials, who are about to decide whether BT should be held to account for the contract under soft laws on corporate ethics established by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
BT told them should be excused the rule that companies determinedly avoid their work contributing to human rights abuses.
The US has operated a drone assassination programme from its network, killing suspected insurgents without trial and slaughtering civilians in attacks gone wrong. But the telco said it had reasons to be ignorant of the programme and reasons to remain ignorant of it under OECD rules.
BT pleaded a special sort of ignorance in a legal document it sent to UK officials, a copy of which was obtained by Computer Weekly and published exclusively here.
It claimed the same principle of ignorance telcos use to resist government attempts to censor people’s communications on the internet. Telcos see it as their duty not to pry on people’s communications.
“BT cannot monitor or control the content that is carried on the system,” it told officials at the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
“BT cannot properly enquire into or know what customers do with the equipment it provides to them,” it said, arguing that telco ethics did not permit it to know whether the US used its network to launch controversial drone strikes.
World Wide Web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others have made the same argument against state surveillance of people’s communications. Their principle is that electronic comms are like the postal service: postal couriers wouldn’t open people’s envelopes to judge whether they thought a message is worthy of being passed on. Telecoms carriers likewise must not pry into people’s digital comms.
BT turned this into an argument for not asking questions about iffy business activities. It wasn’t to know about drone strikes over its network, it argued, because it wasn’t allowed to know.
BT might have justifiably refused to snoop on a customer’s comms. But its argument looked disingenuous. Even if this sort of intrusion into personal affairs was forbidden, it wouldn’t stop a comms company making ethical judgements on commercial contracts. Telcos might ordinarily refuse to supply commercial customers if, say, their credit ratings looked too risky.
Whether telcos discriminate against people when providing general communications lines to the general population has been an issue of civil liberties. Comms firms nevertheless routinely sell advertising and tailor their services according to algorithmic analysis of people’s messages. And people have had their phone cut off for lesser things than drone death. Like not paying their bill on time. Or making hokey music and software downloads.
Similarly, if a known despot asked BT to install a line between his control room and his death squad, the telco might reasonably ask questions. This was just the sort of situation where OECD rules normally require companies to ask questions, instead of just judging business opportunities according to their own financial interests.
As BT chairman Sir Michael Rake put it in the firm’s annual statement on corporate social responsibility in May: there could be “no compromise between financial results and social returns”. There’s more to business than simply making money, he said.
The OECD had clarified this recently, for example, for companies extracting minerals from war zones in central Africa. They were meant to take special care over due diligence on things that looked iffy.