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Surveillance Giants and the Threat on our Human Rights

Amnesty International has published a 60-page long report on Surveillance Giants. This comprehensive report recognises the threat that large tech monopolies, such as Facebook and Google, represent for each person and their human rights.

The Internet has revolutionised our every-day realities in a way that nothing has before. Majority of world's population relies on the Internet to receive information, communicate with their family and network, or seek answers to random questions. The Internet has allowed new business models to thrive an to grow in a speed and scale that was simply unimaginable. Recognising this shift, it is now firmly acknowledged that access to the Internet is vital to enable the enjoyment of human rights. More than 4 billion people rely on Internet in order to participate in the economy and become organised socially and politically. If looked at the ultimate providers of this "access", one sees predominantly two corporations: Facebook & Google.


These two corporations ultimately control the primary channels that people rely on to engage with the Internet. They provide services so integral that it is difficult to imagine the Internet without them. Facebook is the world’s largest social media company. If you combine users of its social platform, its messenger services, WhatsApp and Messenger, and applications such as Instagram, a third of world population uses a Facebook-owned service every day. Facebook sets terms for much of human connection in the digital age. A second company, Google, occupies an even larger share of the online world. Search engines are a crucial source of information, whereas Google controls what you see and when you see it, depending on who you are. The expression "to google something" became part of everyone's dictionary, which reflects the presence of Google in our life, practices and even thinking. The Google search engine is the ultimate source of knowledge and very few realise how this can affect our decision-making and critical thinking.


According to the Report, Google accounts for around ninety percent of global search engine use. Its browser, Chrome, is the world’s dominant web browser. Its video platform, YouTube, is the world’s largest video platform. Google’s mobile operating system, Android, underpins the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.


Despite the great value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms and dominance on the Internet, come at a systemic cost. 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 based on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.


The report is built on various building blocks, including the Chapter 1, which describes the surveillance business models of these giants. Google and Facebook offer services to billions of people without asking them to pay. Instead, citizens pay for the services with their intimate personal data and models of their use. IT is important to remember a good old saying, which should become the mantra of 21st century: "If you do not pay for a product, YOU ARE ONE!" After collecting this data, Google and Facebook use it to analyse people, aggregate them into groups, and to make predictions about them, their behaviour, interests, characteristics, and ultimately every day life - primarily so they can use these insights to sell to other companies that will utilise in their own business models.


Subsequently, the Report moves to address the data privacy breaches, and how this ubiquitous surveillance has undermined the very essence of the right to privacy. In Chapter 3, ‘Data Analytics at Scale: Human Rights Risks Beyond Privacy’, the Report looks at how Google and Facebook’s platforms rely not only on extracting vast amounts of people’s data, but on drawing further insight and information from that data using sophisticated algorithmic systems. These algorithmic systems have been shown to 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. In Chapter 4, ‘Concentration of Power Obstructs Accountability’, the Report shows how vast data reserves and powerful computational capabilities have made Google and Facebook two of the most valuable and powerful corporations in the world today. Google’s market capitalisation is more than twice the GDP of Ireland (both companies’ European headquarters).


There is un-doubtful asymmetry between these giants, governments and public. The companies’ business model has helped concentrate their power, including financial clout, political influence, and the ability to shape the digital experience of billions of people, leading to an unprecedented asymmetry of knowledge between the companies and internet users – as scholar Shoshana Zuboff states “They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.”

#surveillance #Facebook #Google #humanrights

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