'Facebook, Google surveillance assault on privacy'
Washington: Facebook and Google which offer services to billions of people without asking them to pay a financial fee are performing an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, a stinging Amnesty International report said on Thursday, stressing that both companies need to change their business models which are threatening basic human rights.
The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google's surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies' long history of privacy scandals.
"Despite the companies' assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations," said the report that came out on Thursday.
Google and Facebook's total revenues come almost entirely from advertising, at 84 per cent and 98 per cent respectively.
Their information is so attractive to advertisers that the two companies are often described as having a "duopoly" over the market in online advertising.
"But it isn't 'just ads': the information in their data vaults - as well as the computational insights that Google and Facebook derive from that data is of intense interest to a host of actors, from companies who set insurance rates to law enforcement agencies," said the NGO.
While Facebook agreed to pay a $5 billion fine to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over privacy violations in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the European Union's anti-trust regulators have fined Google 1.49 billion euros ($1.7 billion) for abusing its dominance in the online search market by blocking rivals.
In fresh trouble for Google, 50 US Attorneys General probing its anti-trust market practices have decided to expand the investigation into the tech giant's Android and Search businesses.
According to the Amnesty report, the surveillance-based business model of Google and Facebook has thrived from a largely hands-off approach to the regulation of the technology industry in key countries such as the US, the companies' home state.
"But despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook's platforms 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 predicated on human rights abuse," the report noted.
This isn't the internet people signed up for. Citizens today are paying for the Facebook and Google 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 ultimately behaviour - primarily so they can use these insights to generate advertising revenue.
"This surveillance machinery reaches well beyond the Google search bar or the Facebook platform itself. People are tracked across the web, through the apps on their phones, and in the physical world as well, as they go about their day-to-day affairs," said the Amnesty report.
In another example of infringing on users' privacy, Google's partnership with US healthcare organisation Ascension over health data collection of millions of Americans through its "Project Nightingale" has also triggered a federal probe.
According to the NGO report, the companies' use of algorithmic systems to create and infer detailed profiles on people interferes with "our ability to shape our own identities within a private sphere".
"Advertisers were the original beneficiaries of these insights, but once created, the companies' data vaults served as an irresistible temptation for governments as well."
Ultimately, said the report, it is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end and further state-based regulation will be necessary.
In its reply, Facebook disagreed with its business model being "surveillance-based."
"It is important to note that no one is obliged to sign up for Facebook. Facebook's business model is not, as your summary suggests, driven by the collection of data about people. Like many other online companies, Facebook is supported through the sale of advertising," the social networking platform said in a letter which is part of the Amnesty report.
In a statement given to The Verge, a Google spokesperson said the company is working to give people more control over their data.