Human Rights Group Blasts Surveillance by Tech Giants

The Google logo at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

(CN) – In a scathing report, Amnesty International said Thursday the business models of tech giants Facebook and Google, which make huge profits by gathering and selling data on people, are seriously undermining the privacy and human rights of billions of people.

Amnesty’s report is the latest attack on the business practices of Facebook and Google and serves as a call to action for governments to take steps to ensure the rights of internet users are protected. Europe in particular has begun to seek to better regulate the internet giants and protect personal data.

Both Google and Facebook rejected Amnesty’s accusations and argued their business models are based on people voluntarily signing up to use their free services.

“We respectfully disagree with your conclusion that our practices are inconsistent with human rights principles,” Facebook said in response to Amnesty. “Our business model is what allows us to offer an important service where people can exercise foundational human rights – to have a voice (freedom of expression) and be able to connect (freedom of association and assembly).” (Parentheses in original.)

The company added: “There are countless examples of how people have used Facebook to advance human rights around the world.”

But the London-based human rights organization said the companies force people to make “a Faustian bargain” when they sign up to use their services, which have become essential in people’s lives.

“They provide services so integral that it is difficult to imagine the internet without them,” the report said. But it said Google and Facebook force people into “submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse” because both companies engage in ubiquitous and constant surveillance of people by tracking them and selling the information they gather.

“These two companies collect extensive data on what we search; where we go; who we talk to; what we say; what we read,” Amnesty said.

After computer analysis, the companies “have the power to infer what our moods, ethnicities, sexual orientation, political opinions, and vulnerabilities may be,” the report said.

The 60-page report added: “The mass harvesting and monetization of data – primarily for the purpose of advertising – has meant that surveillance has become the ‘business model of the internet.’”

Every day about a third of the world’s population uses Facebook or one of its other platforms, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, according to the report. Google’s reach is even more extensive with about 90% of internet searches conducted through its portal. Google also owns the web browser Chrome and YouTube, which are dominant too, the report said. In addition, it owns Android, the operating system now on the vast majority of smartphones in the world.

“To participate meaningfully in today’s economy and society, and to realize their human rights, people rely on access to the internet – and the tools Google and Facebook offer,” the report said.

Amnesty’s accusations stem from growing alarm over the practices of Facebook and Google and their increasing collection of personal data. Facebook is under scrutiny after the Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved the harvesting of data from millions of Facebook profiles in an effort to elect U.S. President Donald Trump.

“The gradual erosion of privacy at the hands of Google and Facebook is a direct result of the companies establishing dominant market power and control over the global ‘public square,’” the report said.

Amnesty said this “assault of the right to privacy” risks undermining a range of rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.

It argued that the practice of selling personal data for marketing and advertising is contrary to “the right to decide when and how our personal data can be shared with others.”

The creation of “detailed profiles on people interferes with our ability to shape our own identities within a private sphere,” it added.

“Unwarranted and undue interference with our personal data is an intrusion into our private lives. It also threatens our ability to freely and independently develop and express thoughts and ideas and leaves us vulnerable to outside influence and control,” the report said.

The group warned that governments too are interested in obtaining the data collected by Facebook and Google.

“The companies’ data vaults served as an irresistible temptation for governments as well,” it said. “This is for a simple reason: Google and Facebook achieved a degree of data extraction from their billions of users that would have been intolerable had governments carried it out directly.”

It said governments are now unwilling to regulate corporate surveillance because of “the opportunity to access such data.”

Amnesty warned that the tech companies do not appear committed to safeguarding personal data as has been “starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals.”

The human rights group said the sheer size of the two companies is another major problem. It said their business models have helped Google and Facebook concentrate power and command financial clout and political influence.

It also warned that the companies have created “an unprecedented asymmetry of knowledge between the companies and internet users.”

The report cited Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School scholar, who said: “They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.”

Amnesty said the concentration of power 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.”

In a letter to Amnesty, Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s public policy director, said it was committed to upholding human rights and has taken numerous steps to ensure rights and privacy are protected. He also said the company has taken steps to prevent discrimination and “the misuse of people’s information that we saw in the Cambridge Analytica matter.”

But Amnesty said efforts by Google and Facebook to protect privacy and freedom of expression do not go far enough.

“The companies are not taking a holistic approach, nor are they questioning whether their current business models themselves can be compliant with their responsibility to respect human rights,” the report said.

The report urged more state regulation “to reduce the harms of the surveillance-based business model” while not stifling free speech. This could be done, most obviously, by not allowing companies to provide their services on the condition of “ubiquitous surveillance,” the report said.

It said governments need “to reduce or eliminate pervasive private surveillance” and enact measures that can restore “confidence and trust in the internet.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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