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Facebook, Google 'surveillance' threatens human rights, Amnesty International says

The human rights organization calls on governments to restrict the collection of personal data.

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Facebook and Google are being criticized for collecting data on their users to serve ads. 

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Amnesty International joined the ranks of Facebook and Google critics on Wednesday, saying the two companies have "surveillance-based business models" that threaten human rights and undermine privacy. The human rights organization also called on governments to enact and enforce legislation that restricts the amount of personal data companies collect. 

Amnesty's recommendations, which came in a 60-page report titled "Surveillance Giants," also called for laws that would allow users to avoid tracking by advertisers and third parties. The organization urged Facebook and Google to correct any human rights abuses and change their business models.

"Google and Facebook chipped away at our privacy over time. We are now trapped," Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said in a statement. "Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery -- where our data is easily weaponized to manipulate and influence us -- or forego the benefits of the digital world. This can never be a legitimate choice."

The scathing analysis of the two Silicon Valley giants and their business models comes as politicians, activists and even tech company founders call for the breakup of big tech companies, arguing they've become too powerful. Facebook and Google face an antitrust probe from multiple state attorneys general. The US Department of Justice is looking into how online platforms achieve market power. Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, has also called on governments to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook. 

At issue are the troves of data Facebook and Google collect on the billions of people who use their services. The data allows businesses to precisely target users with ads based on their interests, buying habits and other characteristics. 

Facebook and Google, which were given summaries of the report but not shown the entire document until the day of its release, pushed back against the findings, Amnesty International said. In a letter published in the report, Facebook said ad dollars fund a platform that gives billions of people a way to broadcast their thoughts. The company disagreed with the report's characterization of its business model as "surveillance," arguing that people aren't forced to sign up for the social network.

"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)," Steve Satterfield, Facebook's director of privacy and public policy, said in the letter. 

In response to a request for comment from CNET, Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said the company's business model is "how groups like Amnesty International -- who currently run ads on Facebook -- reach supporters, raise money and advance their mission."

Amnesty International said it spoke with senior Google staff, who disputed the report's findings. 

"We recognize that people trust us with their information and that we have a responsibility to protect it," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to CNET. "Over the past 18 months we have made significant changes and built tools to give people more control over their information."

In the report, Amnesty International says Facebook and Google have become critical to how many people communicate with friends and family, as well as find information. Avoiding their services isn't optional for most people. 

The report outlines privacy scandals both companies have grappled with over the years, noting how they're tied to data collection by the tech giants. Revelations surfaced this year that Google's Nest Secure home-security system contained a hidden microphone that the company didn't tell customers about. Facebook has been under fire for privacy concerns after UK political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump's presidential campaign, harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent. Following that scandal, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook a record $5 billion for its privacy mishaps.

At the same time, law enforcement and other agencies are trying to gain access to Facebook and Google user data, and ad targeting can be used to discriminate against certain users, the report said. 

"To protect our core human values in the digital age -- dignity, autonomy, privacy -- there needs to be a radical overhaul of the way Big Tech operates, and to move to an internet that has human rights at its core," Naidoo said. 

Originally published Nov. 20.
Update, Nov. 21: Adds statement from Google.