Amnesty International has unveiled a new report heavily criticising Google and Facebook, and the alleged strategies employed to abuse privacy rights of individuals.
The report, which is downloadable here, claims the likes of Google and Facebook force the general public into a Faustian bargain. Users are effectively asked to forgo certain human rights in order to access the digital society which we are now so dependent on.
“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,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“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.”
The extensive report outlines the business models which allegedly trap the general public into forgoing privacy rights, and calls governments to create more comprehensive privacy frameworks to prevent the harvesting of data. The key issue is the conditions placed on accessing these prominent services, Amnesty International does not believe Google and Facebook should be able to deny access if a user does not consent to data collection.
What is worth noting is that opting-out of certain services is an option. Google’s mapping products do have the opt-out option for example, though this is only a scratch on the surface. Not only are these opt-outs limited, we suspect few in the general public would actually realise this is an alternative.
While this is certainly one of the more comprehensive attacks on the global dominance of two of Silicon Valley’s most prominent residents, this is of course not the first. Amnesty International are quite late to the party as various politicians, including Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, and non-profits, Electronic Frontier Foundation for example, have been protesting Big Tech for some time.
In fairness to the critics, there are some valid points. Firstly, on the market dominance of these two technology giants, and secondly, on the way we as society have sleep-walked into a position where the landscape has been artificially manufactured to compound this dominance.
Some of the more radical critics of Big Tech have been pushing for divestments of certain assets. This will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to deliver though the idea does force regulators to think more proactively about approving acquisitions and mergers in the first place.
For example, if regulators knew then what we know now, would Google have been allowed to acquire Android and YouTube? Equally, would Facebook have been allowed to absorb Instagram and WhatsApp? These six different platforms account for such a monstrous amount of internet traffic, opinion, news and debate, it seems irresponsible for such power to be concentrated into two companies.
Whether this can be fixed is still up for debate, though we are sceptical. Those who are under-threat of divestment are working to integrate the under-fire assets in such a complex manner with other areas of the business, it would be an operational and financial nightmare. If these companies can make it look disastrous to pluck apart the operations, politicians will likely back-off. The Government does not want to destroy one of the main drivers of the economy after all.
The second valid point is the creation of the digital public square. The means by which we share opinion and debate ideas has fundamentally shifted in recent years. People might be afraid of confrontation in real life, but they certainly aren’t online. Some might question whether this is healthy, but it is a reality of today’s society.
However, in accessing the digital public square, Amnesty International argues too many rights are waivered. Privacy is the central cog and Big Tech has been gradually eroding the concept of privacy for years. In 2010, we would have never dreamed of sharing some of the information we do today, but like the boiling frog, we have allowed the environment to change without protest.
The issue at the heart of this on-going debate is of course the treasure trove of data which is being horded by Big Tech. These are companies where the very life blood is information, hence why services are offered to the consumer for free. These services have become critical to the way in which we communicate, learn and debate; avoiding the platforms is an impossible task for some.
It is always worth pointing out that while Amnesty International is highly critical of the dominance of Facebook and Google, it is enjoying the benefits. The report has been circulated on the various platform to draw more eyeballs to the issue, while the organization does run ads through both companies to attract more attention and donations.
Like many other of the critical voices, Amnesty International is calling for greater protections to the consumer. The organisation hasn’t gone as far as to call for a break-up of Big Tech, perhaps realising this is an unachievable goal, but further restrictions should be placed on the companies who are so easily influencing every aspect of our lives.
Facebook and Google are here to stay, primarily because they make incredibly intelligent and forward-looking investment decisions, though how much influence they have on the future is open to debate. Today, these companies have scarily detailed profiles on users, though whether the political rhetoric to limit these powers is anything more than campaign promises remains to be seen.