Amnesty International: Google and Facebook Are a Threat to Human Rights

Illustration for article titled Amnesty International: Google and Facebook Are a Threat to Human Rights
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Amnesty International has compiled a 60-page inventory of cases illustrating how we arrived here in the Google-Facebook surveillance hellscape. It doesn’t tell us much more than we already know, but it pounds and pounds on the message that we’re kneeling before the overlords Mark and Sundar and surrendering our data, even as we read the report, and there’s not much we can do about that. This has all led the organization to label the two tech giants’ business model as a threat to human rights.

Remember that time in 2007, when Facebook published your browsing data to your timeline even when you were off Facebook? And when Google Street View captured payload data from wireless networks as they zipped by your home? Remember the promises made that Facebook would segregate information from WhatsApp and the inevitable heel-turn?

Amnesty reminds us of all of the red lights Facebook’s blown through over the years. It just barreled toward financial domination that could destabilize the world economy. Facebook exuberantly touted mind-reading AR devices. Free Basics, which Facebook has branded as an “onramp to the broader internet,” was more like driving users into Facebook’s tunnel for internet use. The report also touches on the Internet of Things, like Google Assistant and Facebook Portal–and while we’re at it, we can add Amazon to the list.


The report is writing on the wall at this point, but helpful in framing data collection as a potential human rights issue that goes far beyond the public-facing targeted ads for diva cups and sweaters. There was Project Dragonfly, the China-compliant search engine on which Google pulled the plug after more than 600 employees protested and some even quit. They worry about the vulnerability of people in the Global South who are more dependent on Google Android phones and their pre-installed apps. Amnesty surmises that metadata could be used to infer users’ race, class, gender identity, and sexuality, allowing third parties advertisers to discriminate and worse, regimes to oppress their citizens. Sex workers could be outed and penalized, as we full well know from payment processors.

Reached by Gizmodo, a representative for Privacy International also stated that targeted ads are “without a doubt a human rights issue.” PI has found that some mental health sites share user data with advertisers and menstruation apps share data with Facebook “the moment a user opens the app, regardless of whether that person has a Facebook account or not, and again without their knowledge. This is sensitive, private information about our minds and bodies that is not for sale.”

Amnesty nods to government measures to tamp down on this: the July FTC settlement with Facebook over privacy issues; the Irish Data protection authority probe into whether Google’s Ad Exchange violates EU privacy policies; Australia’s watchdog group’s lawsuit against Google for keeping location tracking on even when users opt-out. They also note Google and Facebook’s compliance with the Global Network Initiative, which enforces independent biannual audits to increase transparency but doubt that the surveys are “holistic.”

Amnesty claims that, in a meeting, Google was pretty forthright, reporting that “Google stated that it does conduct human rights due diligence across its business.” Facebook, on the other hand, sent them a letter fashioning itself as a human rights bastion by giving the people a voice, a line they’ve been robotically replaying since day one. As evidence, Facebook proffers that “no one is obliged to sign up for Facebook” [emphasis theirs]. (This argument becomes more laughable as time goes on and major platforms become utilities that are necessary to take part in society.)


Facebook noted that it does not “infer people’s sexual identity, personality traits or sexual orientation.” And while, yes, it may “receive information” about non-users, it doesn’t build data profiles for them, and, yes, the ad targeting feature was a fuck-up. And “[f]ar from ‘contributing’ to unlawful government surveillance, we actively push back against it, scrutinizing every request we receive to ensure it complies with accordance with our terms of service, applicable law, and international human rights standards,” Facebook’s representative told Amnesty.

But here’s the kicker:

Our News Feed algorithm is not designed to “maximise engagement.” The goal of News Feed is to connect people with the content that is most interesting and relevant to them. Our focus is on the quality of time spent on Facebook, not the amount.


That is bullshit. Facebook is an addiction-based model.

And you can practically hear Mark Zuckerberg reading this off a tattered flashcard:

We fully recognize that Facebook has made mistakes in the past, and are committed to continually improving our services and incorporating feedback from the people who use them. We would welcome the opportunity to engage further with you on your report and the important issues it raises.


A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo that they “fundamentally disagree with Amnesty International’s report.” They add:

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.


That Amnesty needs Facebook to share its message is Amnesty’s whole point. There is no opting out of a Facebook-dominated internet, and therefore, there is no opting out of surveillance. In a follow-up one hour after the report’s publication, Amnesty conceded that they, too, must succumb:

What are our options? We cannot vacate them. They aren’t just the public square any more. They are the main street and business district. They could become your doctor’s surgery and your bank. They are the whole darn town and village.

Taking our work off Facebook and Google right now would therefore be bad for human rights as it would hamper our ability to spread our message. There simply is no other viable alternative to reach the public.

For the time being then, the most ethical thing we can do is be open about our dilemma and what we are doing about it. We’ll keep talking with our audiences about this.


Gizmodo has reached out to Google for comment and will update the post if we hear back.

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo

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Social Media and big Data have sort of become a lot like an awesome party that we were told about for weeks by some of your friends. “Come on in, free food, free booze, plenty of hot girls and guys, and did I mention great music? It’s going to be so amazing, because now everyone will see how awesome everyone else is, and everyone will love each other... and weed will just instantly become legal, and racism will stop. Oh and celebrities, have we got celebrities... (accept it’s almost always a marketing team working for their agent, and they just want to sell you things...and a lot of things they sell will be probably useless and occasionally harmful.. and when it is they will never apologize, and then will eventually say or do something that makes you wish you didn’t ever know of them in the first place.) ... but all your real* friends are going to be there, you don’t want to be left out do you?”

*-real in this case being that sort of nice guy or girl you met at a party that one time in college, and since then have never actually interacted in any meaningful way... “real”.

Then you go to the party and while there is some free stuff, a lot of it is crap, and not nearly as nice as they promised. They start rifling though your coats and wallets and purses the moment you come inside, but they don’t tell you they are, or when they do it’s very quick, and there’s no way you heard every warning they gave you....then at the back of the house, they start selling our id’s to crooks, and anyone else who can pay, including some very nice Russians. Meanwhile there are people following us around in the party writing down and recording everything we do, these same people start trying to give us things we never asked for, but they keep pushing them into our faces, “because...” one of them says “the alorithim says you fit the profile”.

So many people start pouring into this party that it get’s super crowded and as you start to think about looking for the exit, as a group of ISIS recruiters, Neo-nazi skin heads, white nationalists, and trump supporters start sending us memes and are asking why you haven’t liked their last couple of posts about the global Zionist conspiracy, and how 9/11 was inside job didn’t you know? Then a friend you came in with starts telling you how the earth is Flat, and reptilians aliens built the pyramids, and then you tuned him out because clearly he lost it. Every man for himself at this point. However when you try to leave, you realize that leaving is a lot harder and convoluted, because who can do without a google account anyways?

Then as you decide to try to make the best of it and take a selfie, and take a breath, someone calls you a fat pig, and your wife can’t even show of her latest dress without sexist ‘get in the kitchen’ comments are made every other second, and some of the comments are becoming open threats. Then another old friend starts posting inappropriate gross pictures, then sends you a text asking “u like?”, then another old friend that you met once at a party three years ago starts literally throwing stuff and calling everyone the ‘n’ word, but he’s not using the ‘a’ he’s using the hard ‘r’. Yikes.

Quickly blocking them out you start to head to the door, but you see that your kids who you’ve boasted about to everyone are now also at the party, and are being talked to by a very strange guy in glasses who is promising them candy... as are all your older relatives who want to send you a picture of Obama and Clinton eating a watermelon...with a vaguely racist, sexist, and homophobic caption...and that your Aunt Gloria hanging out with a strange Trump supporter? Nope... it’s just uncle Bob... who is wearing a MAGA hat, and is throwing white supremacist gang sign, maybe?

This is really starting to go a bad way, and you’ve made up your mind to leave, but figure you’ll just hang out on the back porch taking nice pictures and occasionally, but then you realize that the entire house has been built by some of the worst people on the planet, they’ve got literally every device you own hardwired, and that it’s gotten so big, that leaving it is virtually impossible, unless you literally want to move to the hills and grow crops. Meanwhile the hosts of the party now have the means to control and manipulate almost every nation on earth from tax policies, to abortion rights, to even credit rating and financial systems.

Yet even more people are flooding into the party and these new people are from places that have very few civil rights, and occasionally some of them are taken out the back and they don’t return. They didn’t look happy to go, but you don’t want to think about it, because it would mean that you’d have to acknowledge that there are bigger grosser problems going on then wondering if “OK Boomer” is too soft or too hard on your mom and dad.

Then one of the now fabulously wealthy hosts of the party (who earned his money after going through your pockets and selling your information to the highest bidder) announces how sorry he is about the terrible lies that have been spread with his complete knowledge, and promises that while it might, probably, likely happen again... he’ll feel really bad about it, but that he’s got a dinner to go to with Ben Shapiro, Donald Trump, and Stephen Miller, but everything is under control.

IT’s sort of like that.

It’s been time to leave the party for a while now, but you’re still here... why are you still here? Why?