Surveillance giants: how the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights

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The internet has revolutionised our world on a scale not seen since the invention of electricity. Over half of the world’s population now relies on the web to read the news, message a loved one, find a job, or seek answers to an urgent question. It has opened social and economic opportunities at a scale and speed that few imagined fifty years ago.

Recognising this shift, it is now firmly acknowledged that access to the internet is vital to enable the enjoyment of human rights. For more than 4 billion people, the internet has become central to how they communicate, learn, participate in the economy, and organise socially and politically.

Yet when these billions participate in life online, most of them rely heavily on the services of just two corporations. Two companies 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 dominant 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 humans on Earth use 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; 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 second largest search engine as well as the world’s largest video platform. Google’s mobile operating system, Android, underpins the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.

This report sets out how the surveillance-based business model works: Google and Facebook offer services to billions of people without asking them to pay a financial fee. Instead, citizens pay for the 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.

Amnesty International gave both Google and Facebook an opportunity to respond to the findings of this report in advance of publication. Facebook’s letter in response is appended in the annex. Amnesty International had a conversation with senior Google staff, who subsequently provided information around its relevant policies and practices. Both responses are incorporated throughout the report.

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