What do you do as legal counsel for business and human rights for Yahoo?
I manage and execute Yahoo's initiatives to promote privacy and free expression on our platforms, as well as develop solutions to human rights challenges that we encounter in the course of business. I advise Yahoo on the human rights implications of its business decisions and try to insert a human rights perspective into the decision-making process.
What law do you use as basis?
My work is rooted in international human rights law and standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the Global Network Initiative Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. My team focuses on the rights to privacy and free expression because, when we look at our human rights footprint, these are the rights that our business touches most directly. This is also where we have the greatest opportunity.
At Yahoo we prioritize our users. Our philosophy is 'Users First'. We're focused on protecting our users' rights to privacy and freedom of expression. We also work to promote those rights and ensure that people have access to them across the globe by advocating for laws and policies that are consistent with these rights.
What was the application process to get your job like?
There was an online application. I saw the job posting on a list serve that I subscribe to about business and human rights. I've been working in this field for a couple of years now, so I follow the space closely. The application process consisted of submitting my credentials online. Then there was a phone interview, as well as an in-person interview with a panel of Yahoo employees.
Why did you decide to go into business and human rights?
In each of my law school internships, I worked on the concept of corporate accountability and human rights due diligence, as well as on the issue of access to remedies for victims of human rights violations.
My first internship was at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. We brought lawsuits against gun dealers for selling handguns to people who were legally prohibited from possessing them. Our position was that the companies we were suing knew, or should have known, that the person buying the gun was legally prohibited from possessing a gun but decided to go through with the sale anyway, and someone was killed or severely injured as a result. There were a lot of domestic violence cases and one mass shooting case.
There's a point of decision-making where a company can decide to do the right thing, or they can decide to look the other way. Sometimes the company doesn’t have the right information to make a responsible decision. In other instances, a company may not have processes in place to be able to consider, with the right stakeholders at the table, decisions that have a human rights impact. That set me on this path of corporate accountability. I worked at another organization, EarthRights International, where we sued extractives companies accused of very egregious human rights abuses including torture, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances. Then I spent four years at the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, where I led programs focused on policy changes that would ensure that victims of human rights violations have access to an effective remedy.
It got me even more interested in this idea of corporate accountability and human rights decision-making at a company. I had been working in the public sector for a while. Then I decided that I could also have a real impact at a company, helping it understand potential human rights risks and the positive or negative impacts of its business decisions along with how to factor this into the decision-making process.
I get to do this here at Yahoo everyday and it's awesome. I get to work with great people who care about these issues and who are committed to thinking about it in the decision-making process. Since this site is focused on women in foreign policy, I should mention that my team is almost all women. I work with a lot of awesome men as well, but it's primarily women on my team.
I think it's quite common in human rights law to have a lot of women.
When I look back at the organizations that I have worked at in the past, it's been a real mix. I have worked at other organizations that had more men on the team in the past. Our human rights team at Yahoo is very small but mighty. We have two full-time human rights lawyers who are both women on our team. We report up to women and we sit within Yahoo’s global public policy team (part of the broader legal organization), which is also almost all women. These are the government relations people who do international public policy work for Yahoo, and that team is also almost all women.
Do you think companies can do the right thing and still make money?
Absolutely. Human rights issues are very much consistent with good business practices; there are studies out there that show this. Taking into account free expression and privacy issues is essential to Yahoo's business model because we rely on our users’ trust us, and they rely on us to be operating with their best interest in mind.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?
Effective communication is essential to my success, because I work with many different people who are various roles across the company. We're very cross-functional, so we intersect with many different parts of the business.
Each of our partners has a different perspective, but we have to work together to come up with our next steps on a given issue. It's essential to be able to communicate questions and information, particularly background on international human rights law, in a way that resonates. Our internal partners need to understand how human rights issues are relevant to their role and function, so there's an element of education and communication there.
Another skill is the ability to multi-task and project manage. We work on many multi-phase, long-term projects, so I have to be able to manage them in a way that'll keep them moving forward. In terms of multi-tasking, because of the nature of my team’s role and as we're working on so many different issues, I have to be able to mentally shift gears fairly quickly.
Any specific project you're proud of having worked on?
Yahoo is a member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder initiative. I'm really proud of our work in that area because of the accountability that GNI is fostering. Shortly after I started at Yahoo in August 2015, we dove in on starting our bi-annual assessment (a formal process to determine companies’ compliance with the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy), and that has been on-going since then.
That has been a great way to hold ourselves accountable and to have others hold us accountable. GNI is also a great place for us to learn from other companies. We're able to talk through challenging situations that different companies may be facing in a confidential forum and to determine together what a responsible tech company should do. We can take that learning back internally and integrate that into our practices.
How do you think Business and Human Rights as a field is going to evolve?
The Business & Human Rights Program at Yahoo started in 2008, which makes Yahoo ahead of its time in that regard. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights didn't come out until 2011.
In terms of where I see this going, the role of the government is very relevant because sometimes governments constrain companies, so we're required to comply with laws that may not be human rights-protective. We can push back against those governments, but in the end we may be required to comply. We can engage our public policy team and industry associations, but I think that's something that's unique to our industry where governments actually pass repressive laws that could hold companies back from doing as much as we would like to do. On the flip side, governments can incentivize good business behavior with laws and regulations, like government procurement policies, that promote human rights or that require companies to have good human rights practices.
The other area that I'm seeing evolve in the business and human rights space is more focused on what implementation of the responsibility to respect looks like in different sectors. We have the Global Network Initiative that serves some of that function by saying, 'Ok, what does this look like in the tech sector?' But I think we're going to start seeing more articulation of what the responsibility to respect looks like for different industries.
What would you advise to a young girl or student who wants to go into the business and human rights field?
I do not necessarily advise her to follow the path that I took, even though it got me here. I have an English literature degree and then I went to law school. I don't regret majoring in English literature, and I definitely don't regret going to law school. But I think that there are some areas where, if a young girl knows that she's interested in a career in this area, she could set herself up a little bit better for it by studying economics, focusing on business and on political science or foreign relations.
If she's interested in business and human rights, it's helpful to have a business background but also to understand the international system that businesses are working within. A law degree is helpful but not essential. An education in public policy would also be very relevant.
I absolutely loved both universities. They both happen to be Jesuit schools, and this, especially in my undergraduate, was really important to my education because the Jesuits have a very strong emphasis on community service and a very holistic approach to education. We were encouraged to be aware of issues that were affecting the community that we lived in, which was not an isolated college campus. It was in downtown Milwaukee. We were encouraged to engage. That social justice mission was formative and encouraged me to pursue the path that I’ve pursued.
The fact that Georgetown is Jesuit was one of the deciding factors for me when I was looking at law schools because I wanted to go to law school to make a difference. I wanted to go to a school that shared that tradition of social justice. Georgetown Law has a very international focus. I had opportunities to engage in human rights issues and in environmental issues and to volunteer and to get legal experience in that way.
What can we wish you for the next five years of your career?
I really hope to see this field grow. I plan to stay at Yahoo for a long time, and I will be excited to connect with colleagues at other companies that are starting to think about these issues and to share some of the things that we have learned since Yahoo’s Program started. If you wish something for my career, I would ask you to wish that those opportunities continue to come up for us and that we can just share what we're learning to make the world a better place.
Katie Shay | Legal Counsel, Business and Human Rights | Yahoo
Eight years' experience
CV in brief
Previously worked as Thematic Specialist, Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International USA | Legal & Policy Coordinator / Legal & Policy Associate / Legal & Policy Intern at International Corporate Accountability Roundtable | Law Clerk at Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal | Legal Intern at EarthRights International | Legal Intern at Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence | VISTA at AmeriCorps
Inspired by Katie's career? Here are some related opportunities: Careers at Yahoo! | Get involved and work with Amnesty International USA | Jobs and internships at International Corporate Accountability Roundtable | Employment at Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal | Jobs and internships at EarthRights International | Careers at Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence | Careers at AmeriCorps
Exclusive career interview by Lucie Goulet, April 2016
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