Facebook and Google’s persistent surveillance of billions of people around the world threatens human rights and free expression, says Amnesty International. In a new report, the NGO argues the companies need to change their business model and stop being reliant on people’s data.
The internet is a necessary part of daily life for people all over the world. The “Big Five” tech companies — Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook — dominate almost all online services. Facebook and Google are particularly powerful when it comes to speech and free expression — two fundamental rights that Amnesty International says are under assault.
The report points out that Google now controls 90 percent of search engine usage around the world, while one third of the globe uses a Facebook-owned service every day. “Billions of people have no meaningful choice but to access this public space on terms dictated by Facebook and Google,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
The report comes amid growing regulatory scrutiny of major tech companies. Facebook is currently being investigated for allegedly violating users’ privacy, and the social network’s data has been used to manipulate elections. Google is facing inquiries about its data collection policies. And both companies are being probed over how their allegedly uncompetitive business practices may have impacted consumers.
“This isn’t the internet people signed up for,” said Naidoo. The companies have made people reliant on their services and now monitor every message and search query. “We are now trapped. Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery – where our data is easily weaponized to manipulate and influence us – or forego the benefits of the digital world.”
“Despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost,” Amnesty warns. “The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.”
“This isn’t the internet people signed up for”
What’s most striking about the report is the familiarly of the arguments. There is now a huge weight of consensus criticism around surveillance-based decision-making — from Apple’s own Tim Cook through scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff and Zeynep Tufekci to the United Nations — that’s itself been fed by a steady stream of reportage of the individual and societal harms flowing from platforms’ pervasive and consentless capturing and hijacking of people’s information for ad-based manipulation and profit.
This core power asymmetry is maintained and topped off by self-serving policy positions which at best fiddle around the edges of an inherently anti-humanitarian system. While platforms have become practiced in dark arts PR — offering, at best, a pantomime ear to the latest data-enabled outrage that’s making headlines, without ever actually changing the underlying system. That surveillance capitalism’s abusive modus operandi is now inspiring governments to follow suit — aping the approach by developing their own data-driven control systems to straitjacket citizens — is exceptionally chilling.
But while the arguments against digital surveillance are now very familiar what’s still sorely lacking is an effective regulatory response to force reform of what is at base a moral failure — and one that’s been allowed to scale so big it’s attacking the democratic underpinnings of Western society.
“Google and Facebook have established policies and processes to address their impacts on privacy and freedom of expression – but evidently, given that their surveillance-based business model undermines the very essence of the right to privacy and poses a serious risk to a range of other rights, 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,” Amnesty writes.
“The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google’s surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals. Despite the companies’ assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations.”
Needless to say Facebook and Google do not agree with Amnesty’s assessment. But, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?
Amnesty’s report notes there is now a whole surveillance industry feeding this beast — from adtech players to data brokers — while pointing out that the dominance of Facebook and Google, aka the adtech duopoly, over “the primary channels that most of the world relies on to engage with the internet” is itself another harm, as it lends the pair of surveillance giants “unparalleled power over people’s lives online”.
“The power of Google and Facebook over the core platforms of the internet poses unique risks for human rights,” it warns. “For most people it is simply not feasible to use the internet while avoiding all Google and Facebook services. The dominant internet platforms are no longer ‘optional’ in many societies, and using them is a necessary part of participating in modern life.”
Amnesty concludes that it is “now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end” — saying further state-based regulation will be necessary. Its call there is for legislators to follow a human rights-based approach to rein in surveillance giants.
You can read the report in full here (PDF).