Meta has published its first-ever human rights report detailing the corporation’s most “salient risks” and how it creates “rights-respecting practices, decisions, approaches and products”, but campaigners say it neglects to properly examine the negative rights impacts of its own surveillance-based business model.
Presented as an exhaustive review of its impact on human rights, Meta’s 83-page report summarises how it protects human rights defenders, conducts due diligence, provides remedies for negative impacts, and implements oversight, governance and accountability throughout its operations.
It also lays out how Meta’s work is supported through the relevant corporate policies, as well as specific actions it has taken to deal with the “salient risks” to privacy, freedom of expression, equality and discrimination, public participation in elections, the right to life, and child safety.
These actions include Meta pushing back against government requests for user data if they are not consistent with legal requirements or overly broad; joining the Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, which urges governments to adopt less intrusive surveillance laws; properly collecting, using, storing and deleting user data; the introduction of rights-respecting product development frameworks; conducting human rights impact assessments on both jurisdictions and products; creating an internal “oversight board’; and its investments into and funding of various rights-focused projects or bodies.
On end-to-end encryption (E2EE) specifically, Meta said in its report that client-side scanning technologies – which the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and signals intelligence agency GCHQ have argued can be used to combat child sexual abuse material (CSAM) while also protecting privacy and security – would undermine the integrity of E2EE and disproportionately restrict people’s rights.
Meta said the report was inspired by Principle 15 of the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which makes clear that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights.
“To protect human rights online, there are rarely simple answers, only a careful balance to be struck between competing values. With billions of people using Meta’s apps and services across the world every day, it is incumbent on us to have the right policies in place, and the right processes for acting on them,” said the report’s introduction.
“Last year, we launched our first Corporate Human Rights Policy, which formalises the company’s commitment to human rights and explains how we apply its principles to our platforms, products, policies, transparency and programming efforts.
“Under this policy, we committed to publishing an annual human rights report that would keep the public informed of our progress.”
However, according to Alia Al Ghussain, a campaigner at Amnesty Tech, which is part of Amnesty International, the report “appears to be a cursory and selective analysis of the company’s human rights impacts” that “makes no mention of the root cause of Meta’s systemic threat to human rights – the surveillance advertising business model, which drives the company to collect ever more, and ever more personal, data on users, to then sell targeted ads”.
She added while it is welcome that Meta has made a commitment to respect human rights in line with recognised international standards, the report fails to address some of the firm’s most pressing human rights impacts.
“In particular, the lack of transparency on the India [Human Rights Impact Assessment] HRIA is an appalling attempt to whitewash Meta’s impacts in the country and a missed opportunity for the company to demonstrate a serious commitment to human rights,” she wrote in a blog.
“Meta must be willing to grapple with difficult questions around their business model, in order to fully address the human rights risks of their platforms. Until they are, their alleged efforts to respect human rights will consist more of style than substance.”
Computer Weekly contacted Meta about the criticisms of its human rights report, but received no response by the time of publication.
Surveillance-based business model
Speaking to Computer Weekly in May 2020 about the consolidation of surveillance capitalist practices and enterprises at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Shoshana Zuboff, author of The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power and a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, explained that any data a company collects beyond what it needs to improve the quality of its services constitutes a “behavioural surplus”, which can then be used to make increasingly accurate predictions about users.
Alia Al Ghussain, Amnesty Tech
Zuboff added while all of this was originally done for advertising dollars – something Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin initially condemned for making search engines “inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers” – we are now in a situation where surveillance capitalist enterprises like Facebook are sitting on “configurations of knowledge about individuals, groups and society that are unprecedented in human history”.
Far from being a passive development, Zuboff described the practice of surveillance capitalism as “a direct assault on human autonomy”, adding: “The more I know about you, the more I can intervene with your behaviour and shape it in ways that make it more predictable. These interventions are subtle and designed to bypass your awareness. It also means that this growing power is completely unaccountable.”
Reacting to Meta’s report, Amnesty Tech’s Al Ghussain said the corporation’s surveillance-intensive business model represented a serious threat to a range of human rights, including rights to privacy, freedom of expression and non-discrimination.
“Many of the human rights harms caused by the company stem from their need to maintain user engagement and keep people on their platforms. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but Meta simply cannot claim to be serious about human rights – particularly the right to privacy – whilst continuing to track users across the internet and in their day-to-day lives.”
Jesse Lehrich, Accountable Tech
In March 2022, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) fined Meta €17m for failing to adequately protect users’ data, and has several other investigations into the company underway.
Al Ghussain said there is also no mention in the report of how Meta’s content-shaping algorithms “actively amplify harmful content including hate and discrimination” for further engagement and profit.
Citing a UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar, which found that the Facebook platform played a role in the dehumanisation of Rohingya Muslims during the military’s campaign of violence in 2017, she added: “The design of these algorithms means that Meta risks contributing to ethnic violence across the world.”
Speaking with Gizmodo about Meta’s report, Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of counter-disinformation non-profit Accountable Tech, said: “This is just a lengthy PR product with the words ‘Human Rights Report’ printed on the side. The entire document is corporate propaganda masquerading as honest self-reflection. The question is not whether Mark Zuckerberg will have a sudden moral awakening one of these days, but when policymakers will subject tech giants to actual accountability.”