By J W Jackie
Facebook and Google play an important role in the lives of people across the globe – too big a role, according to Amnesty International. The pro-human rights organization recently published a report entitled, Surveillance Giants, which critiques the “insidious” surveillance exercised by these two digital giants.
Their business model, says Amnesty, can be considered “surveillance capitalism” – one they feel “enables human rights harms” at an alarming level. The report claims that some rights under threat include freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.
The Influence of Facebook and Google
Google and Facebook are extremely prevalent, to the point that most individuals simply cannot survive in the modern world or carry out required work without relying on these products. Google is evidently the world’s most used search engine, with extended services such as Google Docs and Google Classroom making tasks considerably easier for adults and children alike. Hootsuite’s latest Global Digital 2019 Reports show that around 3.26 billion people use social media like Facebook on a daily basis, with a year-on-year increase of over 10%.
The report also indicates that Google is clearly the world’s most visited website, with SimilarWeb and Alexa listing the search giant on top of their lists. The amount of data they have on users is staggering, especially given the number of channels these giants control. Take Facebook, which owns messaging services WhatsApp and Messenger, as well as Instagram. As for Google, the simple fact that 90% of online searches are conducted on this platform make patent the amount of information they can access.
Apps and Privacy
Apps like Google Maps can also make inroads into an individual’s right to privacy. Amnesty points out that smartphones are the primary way that people source the internet. Since they travel along with us, they reveal so much more than our browsing habits. They show our travel patterns and our current location. They also contain a plethora of personal information, including photographs, messages, and e-mails. They additionally store crucial financial information.
They indicate which credit cards people use and which financial institutions they rely on. They reveal whether or not individuals rely on credit and the extent to which they are able to save. They contain users’ financial search history, revealing everything from whether someone is planning to file for bankruptcy to how they plan on investing business profits.
The Systemic Costs of Google and Facebook Use
The Amnesty report points to two main problems with the widespread reliance on Google and Facebook. First, they identify “an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale”. Secondly, there is an added effect that hampers rights like freedom of expression and opinion, as well as freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.
Such is the range and depth of data accessed by these companies that they can discover everything from our sexual orientation to our religious or political beliefs, and not surprisingly, our vulnerabilities. Their business models, says Amnesty, have changed drastically, and are now ‘surveillance-based’.
An example of how the models can go wrong, the report stated, is the Cambridge Analytics Scandal, in which data from some 87 million Facebook users were obtained to micro-target people to sway their vote at elections. The power tech companies wield is so concentrated, note researchers, that it can be difficult for governments to demand accountability, or for individuals who have been affected to obtain justice if they feel their human rights have been trampled upon.
Has the Internet Taken Us Too Far?
Amnesty has stated that in order to ensure that human rights are protected, both Facebook and Google need to take a holistic approach to the matter, adapting their business models whenever they are affecting users’ human rights.
The organization also believes that the era of self-regulation in the technological sector has come to a close. Governments must create a new system of regulations, always ensuring that human rights are at the core of any short and long-term changes. Change is needed if human beings are to trust the internet – something they need to do, considering their heavy reliance on this technology.
The widespread use of Facebook and Google requires a complete shift in both the business models and the way in which technology is regulated, according to Amnesty International. These companies are amassing data that ranges from personal images to our beliefs and vulnerabilities.
Events such as the Cambridge Analytics Scandal show the extent to which this information can be used to step on fundamental human rights. They also reveal the importance of ensuring that human rights are a pillar of new approaches to privacy and access to user data.