On November 21st, Amnesty International (AI) released a report focused on two of the tech giants – Google and Facebook, and how their business model allegedly threatens human rights.
The report is called “Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights,” and it can be found here. [pdf]
The introduction of the report is the following:
“Google and Facebook help connect the world and provide crucial services to billions. To participate meaningfully in today’s economy and society, and to realize their human rights, people rely on access to the internet—and to the tools Google and Facebook offer. But Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model is inherently incompatible with the right to privacy and poses a threat to a range of other rights including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.”
Currently, approximately 4 billion people have access to the internet worldwide, and most of these people use the service of Google and Facebook, which according to AI is worrisome, since the way people connect to the internet and receive information goes through only two channels, which is a legitimate concern.
“Facebook is the world’s dominant social media company. If you combine users of its social platform, its messenger services, WhatsApp and Messenger, and applications such as Instagram, a third of humans on Earth use a Facebook-owned service every day. Facebook sets terms for much of human connection in the digital age.”
And yet, Google’s grip on people with access online is even more all-encompassing:
“A second company, Google, occupies an even larger share of the online world. Search engines are a crucial source of information; Google accounts for around ninety percent of global search engine use. Its browser, Chrome, is the world’s dominant web browser. Its video platform, YouTube, is the world’s second largest search engine as well as the world’s largest video platform. Google’s mobile operating system, Android, underpins the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.”
This is twice more important when it comes to the above-mentioned Android, since most smartphones use it and it has, to a very large degree, replaced the desktop as the primary way to access and use the internet.
Thus, according to the report, users need to make a sort of “deal with the devil” – they use Facebook and Google’s services, and in return need to adhere to the rules of their surveillance-based business model.
As AI put it – “they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.”
The report itself is separated into 4 chapters, and is finalized with a conclusion, with recommendations to boot.
Chapter 1, “the Business of Surveillance” sets out how exactly the business model in question works: Google and Facebook offer a free service to billions of people. But users pay with access to the personal data. With the accumulated data, users are aggregated into groups, the information is analyzed and then predictions about people’s interests, characteristics, behaviours, mostly so that they can generate advertisement revenue.
“This surveillance machinery reaches well beyond the Google search bar or the Facebook platform itself. People are tracked across the web, through the apps on their phones, and in the physical world as well, as they go about their day-to-day affairs.”
This information also includes things that are protected under human rights law, but Google and Facebook don’t specifically use it without the agreement of the end user.
Chapter 2, focuses on “Assault on Privacy” and focuses on how the right to privacy has all but died due to large-scale, all-encompassing surveillance. Not only do Google and Facebook get access to intimate data, but their services are only given after consent is given to use this information.
“The companies’ use of algorithmic systems to create and infer detailed profiles on people interferes with our ability to shape our own identities within a private sphere.”
Initially, this was aimed to the benefit of advertisers, but now governments are quite keen on getting access to the information as well.
On top of that, both companies have had numerous privacy scandals related to them, and yet, users keep providing them with their information willingly.
Chapter 3, outlines the risks associated with human rights and is named “Data Analytics at Scale: Human Rights Risks Beyond Privacy.”
Both Google and Facebook not only accumulate information, but also use sophisticated algorithms to gain further insight from the data. This is, of course, aimed at achieving the best result for the company and the advertisers.
This is when it comes down to what really the issue is about – freedom of opinion and expression.
“These algorithmic systems have been shown to have a range of knock-on effects that pose a serious threat to people’s rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination. These risks are greatly heightened by the size and reach of Google and Facebook’s platforms, enabling human rights harm at a population scale.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is given as an example, when data from 87 million Facebook users was used to manipulate people for a political campaign.
This “opened the world’s eyes to the capabilities such platforms possess to influence people at scale – and the risk that they could be abused by other actors. However, although shocking, the incident was the tip of the iceberg, stemming from the very same model of data extraction and analysis inherent to both Facebook and Google’s business.”
In Chapter 4, “Concentration of Power Obstructs Accountability” and focuses on how the massive accumulation of data and powerful computational capabilities makes Google and Facebook almost untouchable.
“This concentrated power goes hand in hand with the human rights impacts of the business model and has created an accountability gap in which it is difficult for governments to hold the companies to account, or for individuals who are affected to access justice.”
And this is where the spin of the entire AI report comes: government have an obligation to protect people’s human rights, but the companies can’t be held accountable because they’re too powerful. What is the solution?
Easy – give government control over the data. Self-regulation in the tech sector has come to an end, according to AI and corporate censorship in social media must pave the way for government censorship in the entirety of the internet.
“Governments must take positive steps to reduce the harms of the surveillance-based business model—to adopt digital public policies that have the objective of universal access and enjoyment of human rights at their core, to reduce or eliminate pervasive private surveillance, and to enact reforms, including structural ones, sufficient to restore confidence and trust in the internet.”
The AI report gives several recommendations to governments:
- Access to the services of tech giants must be made free for everybody and not depend on access to personal information. This will require enacting and/or enforcing legislation to guarantee people a right ‘not to be tracked’ by advertisers and other third parties;
- Initially, companies must be prevented from making access to their service conditional on individuals “consenting” to the collection;
- In escalating suggestions, the final one is focused on governments organizing effective digital educational programmes to combat privacy abuses and so on, prior to that strict regulation to specifically what can be used, collected and even said needs to be implemented.
In recommendations to companies, AI claimed that Google and Facebook must simply do a better job in respecting people’s privacy and strictly adhering to government guidelines, regulations and so on, if they are to be implemented as strictly in the future.
As an annex to the report, Facebook sent a response letter categorically rejecting the claim that it operates a “surveillance-based model” and that it does its best to protect people’s privacy and that it attempts to avoid human rights abuses. Furthermore, it claimed that the AI report mispresented Facebook’s algorithms that are allegedly prone to showing sensational content and rather said that it aims to show content that is specifically interesting to a specific person, depending on their behavior so that anybody can see more of what they like, not what Facebook thinks everybody should see.
Regardless, AI’s report sets out some legitimate concerns in a very well-thought and elaborate manner, and then spins the entire narrative in a way that it claims governments should be given much more control.
In essence, the bottom line is that according to AI – corporate censorship and narrative constructing should be replaced by a purely government-driven narrative construction and censorship, and the attractiveness of that seems rather elusive.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Constructing the Narrative: Censorship On Wikipedia, YouTube, Instagram
- Instagram’s IGTV Starts Direct Censorship Campaign Over US Presidential Election