Google, Facebook business models threat to rights, Amnesty says

According to the organisation, companies' users are subject to constant surveillance, without their consent

The data-collection business model fueling Facebook and Google represents a threat to human rights around the world, Amnesty International said in a report Wednesday. The NGO argued that offering people free online services and then using information about them to target money-making ads imperils a gamut of rights including freedom of opinion and expression.

"Despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook's platforms come at a systemic cost," Amnesty said in its report, "Surveillance Giants."

"The companies' surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse," the London-based human rights group continued, adding that such business model is "inherently incompatible with the right to privacy," 

The report also maintained that part of the problem is that the two Silicon Valley companies have gotten too big, establishing a "near-total dominance over the primary channels through which people connect and engage with the online world," giving them unprecedented power over people's lives.

“The dominance of the companies’ platforms means it is now effectively impossible to engage with the internet without ‘consenting’ to their surveillance-based business model,” the report says. 

"Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives - amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetizing the personal data of billions of people," said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International's secretary general.

"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," she added.

The report thus called for governments to implement policies that ensure access to online services while protecting user privacy.

"Governments have an obligation to protect people from human rights abuses by corporations," Amnesty maintained. "But for the past two decades, technology companies have been largely left to self-regulate."

In response, Facebook pushed back against what it contended were inaccuracies in the report, saying it strongly disagreed with its business model being characterised as surveillance-based.

"Our business model is what allows us to offer an important service where people can exercise foundational human rights --to have a voice (freedom of expression) and be able to connect (freedom of association and assembly)," said a letter from Facebook privacy and public policy director Steve Satterfield in an annex to the Amnesty report.

"Facebook's business model is not, as your summary suggests, driven by the collection of data about people," he added.

In addition, Facebook spotlighted its measures implemented which limit data information used for ad targeting; controls provided to users regarding their data; and steps taken to restrict abuses by apps on the social network.

"As you correctly note, we do not sell data; we sell ads," Facebook said.

Google did not offer a specific written response. But the Amnesty report noted that Google announced this month it would limit data that it shares with advertisers through its ad auction platform  and had launched a new feature allowing users to delete location data.

Still, the report comes amid growing regulatory scrutiny of major tech companies. Facebook is currently being investigated for allegedly violating users’ privacy, and the social network’s data has been used to manipulate elections. Google is facing inquiries about its data collection policies. And both companies are being probed over how their allegedly uncompetitive business practices may have impacted consumers.

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