As technology continues to advance and open new opportunities for communication and innovation, there is also increased risk for it to be used in ways inconsistent with laws or international norms regarding human rights. Cisco has long recognized that we have a responsibility to respect human rights. We are meeting this responsibility in a way that reflects the global nature of our business, the complexity of our supply chain and selling programs, and the rapid nature of innovation throughout our business units. A centralized Business and Human Rights (BHR) team, formed in fiscal 2019, leads this work. BHR is led by our Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, who reports to our Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer, and Chief Compliance Officer. BHR’s work builds upon Cisco’s longstanding commitment to human rights, captured in our Global Human Rights Policy. This policy acknowledges our corporate responsibility to respect human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

BHR identifies potential human rights risks and advises the business on strategies to prevent, mitigate, and account for them. It then works across functions to make these strategies standard practice. As an internal clearinghouse for human rights matters, the team answers questions, conducts due diligence to inform business decisions and product development, and trains employees who may face human rights challenges in the course of their daily work.

We continually revise our Global Human Rights Policy to strengthen our human rights commitment. In fiscal 2020, we reviewed and updated the list of treaties, covenants, and global norms that guide Cisco’s approach to human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Assessing risk across our portfolio

Consistent with our commitment to the UNGPs, we’re taking steps to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for human rights risks throughout our product portfolio. During fiscal 2020, we assessed three Cisco business units— Security, Collaboration, and Internet of Things—for salient human rights issues. This exercise included reviews of product pipelines, interviews with Cisco leaders, and discussions with external experts in business and human rights. The saliency mapping resulted in new insights and led to recommendations that will be integrated into Cisco’s human rights approach, and the work will continue as we apply this process to additional business units.

External engagement on human rights

Our thought leadership on technology and human rights is not limited to the walls of our company. Cisco subject matter experts and members of BHR continue to participate in forums like RightsCon (held virtually in 2020) and share best practices through groups like the Article One Business Roundtable on Human Rights & AI, and the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Human Rights Working Group.

Supporting social justice

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to equal protection against discrimination (UDHR Article 7). In fiscal 2020, the BHR team worked with teams across Cisco to articulate Social Justice Beliefs & Actions that represent a commitment to all groups, and specifically to the African American/Black community in the U.S. Read Cisco’s Social Justice Beliefs and Actions here.

Responsible innovation in AI/ML

AI/ML is redefining our way of life, enabling machines to do what we once thought only humans could. As one of the leading providers of network, security, cloud, analytics, and collaboration solutions, AI/ML presents a powerful opportunity for Cisco. Rapid advancements in AI/ML technology require close attention to ethical and human rights issues, including security, privacy, fairness, explainability, transparency, and accountability. At the same time, both customers and governments are increasingly concerned about the human rights implications of AI/ML technology. Government regulations and standards are actively emerging that will require companies to innovate responsibly.

We are addressing these issues proactively through our AI/ML Trust Strategy, which leverages expertise across our engineering, security, privacy, human rights, and customer trust teams, among others. The Trust Strategy, which kicked off in 2019, includes a cross-functional effort to develop internal policies and standards that reflect a responsible approach to AI/ML development. The AI/ML Trust Strategy ties in with Cisco’s Social Justice Beliefs and Actions. One of the critical components of the effort is designing relevant technologies to a set of “fairness” requirements in order to avoid unintended bias and purposeful violation of human rights, and to enable access for people with disabilities to the greatest extent possible.

We also named an executive sponsor to lead the AI/ML Trust Strategy, and will further strengthen the strategy during fiscal 2021 by reviewing our Cisco Secure Development Lifecycle (SDL) to adapt it to address unique scenarios that could arise in an AI/ML context. Next, we will conduct a series of pilots to test these requirements and continue to improve our approach.

Our AI/ML Trust Strategy will allow Cisco to continue to innovate, uphold our values, and meet the expectations of our customers, governments, and other stakeholders. In turn, we hope to shape industry best practice and the public discourse on responsible AI/ML.

Read more about Cisco’s approach to human rights in the supply chain.

To learn more about the progress we’re making to power a more inclusive future through CSR, visit our Cisco ESG Reporting Hub, where you can read our CSR Impact Report.

Cisco Impact Report graphic


Katie Shay

Director, Associate General Counsel, Business & Human Rights

Cisco Legal