Google, Facebook accused of human rights abuse

Intrusion: Even our right to free thought is at risk. © Amnesty International

Are two of the biggest companies in the world laying waste to human rights? A major new report, yesterday, claims they are destroying the right to privacy, freedom of expression and equality.

The charity was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign to stop torture around the world.

It has been attacked by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the Chinese Communist Party.

It has been praised by the anti-apartheid hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Pakistani activist for female education, Malala Yousafzai.

It helped to secure an international Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, the International Criminal Court in 2002, and a global convention against torture in 1984.

It is a global movement of seven million people and is widely recognised as one of the world’s most influential NGOs.

So, guess who Amnesty International now says is the biggest threat to human rights on Planet Earth?

The answer is two brands that we all use — and, by using, we sustain — every day of our lives: Google and Facebook.

Yesterday, Amnesty published a damning 60-page indictment of the twin “surveillance giants” warning that they are enabling human rights harm on a global scale.

What are the key points?

1. To participate meaningfully in today’s economy and society, and to realise their human rights, people rely on access to the internet and the tools Google and Facebook offer.

2. Facebook is the world’s dominant social media company. If you combine users of its social platform, WhatsApp and Messenger, and apps such as Instagram, a third of humans on Earth use a Facebook service every day.

3. Google accounts for around 90% of global search engine use. Its browser, Chrome, is the world’s dominant web browser. Its video platform, YouTube, is the world’s second largest search engine, as well as the world’s largest video platform. Google’s mobile operating system, Android, underpins the vast majority of the world’s smartphones

4. But their surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain. Google and Facebook offer services to billions of people without asking them to pay a financial fee. Instead, citizens pay for the services with their intimate personal data. After collecting this data, Google and Facebook use it to analyse people, aggregate them into groups, and to make predictions about their interests, characteristics and behaviour — so they can use these insights to generate advertising revenue.

5. These two companies collect extensive data on what we search; where we go; who we talk to; what we say; what we read, and, through the analysis made possible by computing advances, have the power to infer what our moods, ethnicities, sexual orientation, political opinions and vulnerabilities may be.

6. These algorithmic systems have been shown to have a range of knock-on effects that pose a serious threat to people’s rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of thought, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

So, are two of the biggest and best-known companies in the world laying waste to human rights?

Digital dictatorship

It depends what you call “human rights”, say some. If you mean the right to live in the 19th century, then perhaps they are. Like it or not, we live in a digital age now. Privacy is a value we must learn to sacrifice for the amazing benefits of instant connection to the rest of the human race and limitless knowledge. Embrace it!

You’ve fallen for the propaganda, say others. Privacy is not a commodity that we can trade. It is as deeply essential to our happiness as love, or having a soul. Imagine if Google asked you to give up the ability to love or have a soul in order to use Android. That’s what we are talking about here.

You Decide

  1. Is privacy a big deal?
  2. Is the idea of human rights a bit old-fashioned?


  1. Read the Expert Link about the new social network from Jimmy Wales. Write one side of paper about whether you think it will work or not.
  2. Read the executive summary at the start of the full Amnesty report in the Expert Links. Make a list of points that you think the authors have got wrong.

Some People Say...

“They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.”

Shoshana Zuboff, American author and scholar

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Google and Facebook are two of the most valuable and powerful companies in the world today. Google’s market capitalisation is more than twice the GDP of Ireland; Facebook’s is larger by a third.
What do we not know?
Whether governments will hit back. Regulators and national authorities across various jurisdictions have begun to take a more confrontational approach to the concentrated power of Google and Facebook — investigating the companies for competition violations, issuing fines for infringing Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and introducing new tax regimes for big technology companies.

Word Watch

Ayatollah Khomeini
He declared an Islamic republic and was appointed Iran’s political and religious leader for life. Islamic law was introduced across the country. His denunciation of American influence led to militant Islamic students storming the US Embassy in Teheran in November 1979. Some of the American hostages were held captive for more than a year.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
A Nobel Peace Prize award-winner, he is a renowned South African Anglican cleric known for his staunch opposition to the policies of apartheid.
Malala Yousafzai
Also known as Malala, is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.
Arms Trade Treaty
A multilateral treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional weapons. It entered into force on 24 December 2014.
International Criminal Court
An intergovernmental organisation and international tribunal that sits in The Hague, Netherlands. The ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression
Global convention
An international human rights treaty, under the review of the United Nations, that aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment around the world
Non-governmental organisations, commonly referred to as NGOs, are usually non-profit independent of governments; many are active in humanitarian or social areas.
Human rights
The basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world. In the UK, human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.
Faustian bargain
A deal whereby a person trades something highly moral, such as personal values or the soul, for worldly goods like riches or success and power.

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