Amnesty International – the organisation which works to expose torture, wrongful imprisonment and ethnic cleansing – has turned its fire on to the digital duopoly of Facebook and Google, claiming that their “pervasive surveillance” is a major threat to human rights.
A 60-page report – Surveillance Giants – lays out how the business models of Facebook and Google allow for the mass harvesting of users’ data in exchange for the free use of their platforms and uses exploitative algorithms to prey on vulnerable people.
It claims consumers are forced into a Faustian pact, “whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights”.
Amnesty secretary general Kumi Naidoo said: “Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives – amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetising the personal data of billions of people. Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.”
The report acknowledges that other tech companies participate in “surveillance capitalism”, notably Amazon and Microsoft, as well as data brokers and telecoms companies but it singles out Facebook and Google for their dominance of specific markets.
It claims that, excluding China, Facebook has about 70% of social media users and 75% of mobile messaging users (through WhatsApp). Meanwhile Google answers 90% of Internet searches, owns YouTube, the second largest search service and leading video platform, dominates the browser market with Chrome, and oversees the largest mobile operating system, Android, with some 2.5 billion monthly active devices.
Between them, the two companies collect 60% of global online ad revenue and account for 90% of the growth in the digital ad market.
Naidoo added: “The Internet is vital for people to enjoy many of their rights, yet billions of people have no meaningful choice but to access this public space on terms dictated by Facebook and Google.
“To make it worse this isn’t the Internet people signed up for when these platforms started out. Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time. We are now trapped. Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery – where our data is easily weaponised to manipulate and influence us – or forego the benefits of the digital world.
“This can never be a legitimate choice. We must reclaim this essential public square, so we can participate without having our rights abused.”
Amnesty is now calling on governments to enact laws to ensure companies including Google and Facebook are prevented from making access to their service conditional on individuals “consenting” to the collection, processing or sharing of their personal data for marketing or advertising.
Companies including Google and Facebook also have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever and however they operate, it concludes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Google and Facebook strongly disagree with the report’s findings.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Facebook enables people all over the world to connect in ways that protect privacy, including in less developed countries through tools like Free Basics. Our business model is how groups like Amnesty International – who currently run ads on Facebook – reach supporters, raise money, and advance their mission.”
Google added: “We recognise that people trust us with their information and that we have a responsibility to protect it. Over the past 18 months we have made significant changes and built tools to give people more control over their information.”
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