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Online platforms as human rights arbiters

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Title Online platforms as human rights arbiters
Title of Series re:publica 2016
Part Number 156
Number of Parts 188
Author Joergensen, Rikke Frank
License CC Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Germany:
You are free to use, adapt and copy, distribute and transmit the work or content in adapted or unchanged form for any legal purpose as long as the work is attributed to the author in the manner specified by the author or licensor and the work or content is shared also in adapted form only under the conditions of this license.
DOI 10.5446/20685
Publisher re:publica
Release Date 2016
Language English

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Subject Area Computer Science
Abstract Through the prism of online platforms, this presentation will examine challenges related to human rights protection in the online domain. This will include questions such as: what does human rights law (and soft law) say about private actors and their human rights responsibilities?; how have major internet companies taken up human rights in their discourse and practices?; what are some of the dynamics that work for or against a stronger human rights protection online?; and are the frameworks that currently govern the activities of these online platforms sufficient to provide the standards and mechanisms needed to protect and respect human rights online?
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home the and dozens good morning
everyone nice to be here and
so what I wanna talk to today is the Internet giants and human rights it's a research project that I'm currently working on uh where and looking at what does it mean for all human rights protection that we have a large corporate interests that google the facebook so it of our time that control and govern a large
part of the online infrastructure the I wanna go through 4 main themes and hopefully in 20 minutes max so we have at least 5 or 10 minutes for discussion and questions 1st I'll say a few words about the uh the power of these
companies the role that they play then novel talk a bit about their the challenge from a human rights law perspective of having them held accountable under human rights law then I'll tell you some of my
findings from my current research and based on empirical studies of Google and Facebook where I'm looking at the sense-making within a company is how do they themselves the the role of these in the human rights and how is this sense making translated into their policy is there a specific product features the governance
structures and then a few words at the end about challenges and then way forward and maybe I would also love to hear some of your comments and and that last point so if we start about the
way the start with with the powers that these factors have this is a quote from to Google executives In the vast majority of us will increasingly find ourselves living working and being governed into wells at once I think that's
that's a pretty strong quote what Erickson met of the Google and Cohen as chief executive of Google ideas in in New York is basically saying here is that in the future will basically be
governed by 2 parties the mean coming from a to being a former public uh and diplomat a long time ago and now in the human rights field this is it's relatively provocative to me while at the same
time I also understand uh why he's saying it's and and the more I talk to these companies I I get a sense of of of how they how they see these issues so this was to give you 1 advertiser then it's going to academia we have checked Belkin an American legal scholar who's stating here that he thinks it's important that we remember we talk about we have we have such a strong narrative of freedom related to the Internet the freedom the way that it has has liberated liberated us from classical gatekeepers and that has been the narrative of for a long time and increasingly we're
recognizing that we are subjected to the structures of controlled just by different parties and different means and 1 of these very strong structures of control are the private platforms will be basically
conduct a a lot of our public life and the thing about these new platforms these new infrastructure self control 1 of the things I think that's interesting is that if the same it's the same infrastructure that gives us the freedom that we so much cherries to express ourselves to such information to find line like minded to counter governments etc. that explains the structure that structure is exactly the same structure that also provide new means of basically mapping of surveilling us they're retaining an unprecedented amount of data about us so there is really very
little means of of of opting out we are in we are in structures that are both found to be liberating but the same time also entail new means of of control 1 last quote uh also from a legal scholar a new breaking uh complain that basically states here that it's important to remember that as information becomes crucial to every aspect of our life I guess it always has been but the conditions under which we process and deal with information those conditions have changed and the control over those structures uh may influence the way we are able to participate in modern life to put it a bit differently if a lot of decisions about us not being taken within structures where we don't have access where we don't know where we are not able to see that points that make up decisions that affect our lives then it's basically a different kind of democratic society over in society from what we use to now if we tend to
Google and Facebook for the matter of simplicity it could be another idea could be a number of other Internet giants but I'm focusing on those 2 and they are very powerful in terms of economic power In February this year
at Google was the uh most highly valued the company in the world it has lost that position again now to Apple but it is to say that it's up there among the tree most valued countries in the world but I think the net value at the moment is around 550 billion US dollars the uh that's a company that was only founded in 98 Facebook in comparison is from the 2004 they've only been on the stock exchange for 4 years and Marx other but is now the 6th richest person in
the world so we are talking about an immense amount of wealth and I added to and I went to visit those of their headquarters in December last year and I think it was only when I was there in those physical surroundings that I really that it really I really grasp just how rich they are just how many people then the employer and more importantly that all this money this basically generated from advertising I mean it's generated from providing free services that's really amazing I think to think about and and still
mind-boggling in terms of political power a Google has the
strongest lobby presence of all companies of all companies in Washington DC now they spent 20 million US dollars a year and being alone in the US and Europe this is not to to to have a strong criticizing mark on Google that's not my main message here my main message here is to recognize or to have us all recognize that there are huge money involved and that there is a huge link to political power otherwise they wouldn't pay such strong lobbying uh attendance to major capitals to also if we look
at the flow of executives within these text spaces and the government I mean it's basically people are floating around from from US State Department from state departments in in Europe and to these companies so there's also on staff level there really a great flow there's a close link between the political the political and policy inspectors and these companies in terms of social power they have a huge social power because they have so many users basically that the vast majority of us by using their services every day and by and large that user base is pretty uncritical the don't have a huge like and user consumer movement or anything like that we have campaigns here and there but generally and especially when you move outside countries like Germany or France that are a bit more critical than the average and that's not the narrative when when you're in the US there's not very critical narrative in an in in many other parts of the world as well and the and
finally have put down technical power because when you have so much wealth and so much of that wealth goes into engineering into artificial intelligence into robotics into algorithm development etc. of course they also have a huge say in how the future of take development looks like and how it's put to use so this 1st you to give you a picture of
the so that just you know some companies they really have they really have huge powers in huge influences and and then normally we would think that the great powers come great responsibility but the tricky thing here is that the human right treaties that was set out after the 2nd world war 2 basically protects citizens from abuse of power all formulated with the state in mind they will formulated they were drafted they were they were subscribe to at a time where we were imagining power abuse or potential power abuses of used by the states private companies are not bound by
human rights law so they might they might have taken up human rights a lot in their internal discourse they are part of a lot of voluntary initiatives and they did stuff with regard to human rights also but they are not bound by human rights lawyer you cannot couldn't have company before and a
human rights court it's all in the volunteer is so in between the legal standards and then corporate social responsibility that's you know a more normative normative uh baseline so the strongest
a standard-setting document that we have in the field is something called the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that was drafted by a Harvard professor John in 2011 that's the main standard that document it's been widely appraise then adopted across the field and and it speaks of its speaks there to the company
obligate not the company that the company responsibility to respect human rights and makes the point that all companies should take a proactive measures to basically mn mitigate any negative impact they may have on human rights so that it basically ss all their business conduct and the other any of the stuff we are doing in the way you know all processes or products the way between us not the way that we work in a local community etc. that may have a negative human rights impact and if so try to mitigate that that impact that's basically uh the core message and with regard to companies but is not binding it's not finding it's it's a recommendation it's it's widely embraced but it's still a recommendation and then I've also list that probably the
most relevant industry initiatives related to the tech companies the global network initiative that was founded by a um by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society some too few tech companies in the beginning was only like 304 5 I think there 8
now but all the main ones are in there um and they also set out a number of baselines and recommendations with regard to how they should ensure that their practices on human rights compliant however as I will come back to there a real limitations to the way that they think about and implement human rights a within the Global Network Initiative the
OK then now if we go over to a sum of the empirical stuff and down I when I started with this research um I had the promise from the 2 companies that I would get access to it to talk to you key policy people within an hour however it has proved quite difficult to get access it's been a challenge that could you know the server talk on it so uh but I won't go into that here but I've managed in the
into to do around 20 interviews more less 50 50 between Google and Facebook a bit more a Google interviews of also analyzed uh around 20 talks that's in the public domain so that's the good thing about our age that you can actually find a lot of the corporate executives and other staff talking about these issues at places such as this and then afterwards you can you can basically you this into its uh and and often they are actually more frank and panel discussions and stuff like that then when you have them and to and bases so that that has
also been very useful and finally have attended various policy events around the spaces and also been able to to carry out conversations there and as I mentioned initially my idea has been to understand to get away from the naming and shaming discourse to try to get to where they to try to understand almost you know like from another graphic perspective how do they understand and work with human rights what
is the sensemaking around these issues why is there such a strong disconnect between the way have we in my friend a community of my human rights community or a lot of other communities that I know off to think about these corporate actors and human rights and and the way they think about themselves what's I mean what's going on was to be and how does that understanding them influence
the way they work so since we don't have that much time I will go straight to some of the main conclusions that have found and so 1st of all there is a strong
presumption within these companies of doing good and that actually makes a critical discourse a bit difficult because they they have a strong belief that they are basically liberators they have very much uh anchored in the narrative of of good doers uh and this is not to say that with the global and the faithful posts I'm not doing good they are they also have great potentials in many respects but it's just that whereas with others older and more established companies
there is a more you could say he made sure there's a different kind of recognition of that has accompanied their various aspects and where you might have problematic issues uh in
the communities where you operate it seems that within this sector it's really difficult to have that critical discourse the presumption of being too good doers us so dominance and also there's a strong sense
of being transformative with the use of technology really being on the forefront and all the time pushing the limits of what technology can do and that means for example
that if you raise privacy critical issues a for example in relation to some of Facebook's practices 1 response that you will often Council would be that's what we need to push the use of the technology all the time that's all role and then you know there's always this sort of reluctance to new practices new changes but gradually this whole discourse is all this whole practice of using technology of using social networks is evolving and we are part of that and our role is to push the use all the time and so I sense of being at the
forefront front of being very transformative yet when it comes to human rights there's actually a
very conservative approach and by that I mean that there is a sense that the human rights stress mainly steam from governments human Rights threats of something that we like to talk to talk about in relation to governments in countries that we don't approve of the easy cases so to speak the China the cube the north Korea excetera many of these countries and they can very rightly so to criticize but this is too simplistic to say that human rights problems and challenges only of her in these places and especially when we talk about companies that have such a strong impact on users human rights it's important to have a recognition of the role they may play their own negative impact and that recognition is not really there it's it's purely about governments it's about pushing back holding back against repressive government behavior so in other words the
rugged guidelines that I spoke about earlier the UN Guiding Principles on on human rights and business that speak to the need to assess all your business practices from that perspective that is being translated into something that looked at business practices in relation to Government requests so that would be at 2 diligent procedure if a government request at the company to shut down the service but where they take decisions in relation to for example their terms of service enforcement of their community standards that would be that the same type of of assessment that wouldn't be perceived as a human rights as freedom of expression is you so if we still made a bit on on some of the findings in relation to freedom of
expression and privacy that are focused on mostly because they had the 2 human rights that I think that most uh that are most urgently needed to address there are also other human rights for sure that that would be relevant but these have been my focus
so as strong free-speech identity in both companies I mean they're born out of the the US West Coast not surprisingly they think highly about free speech and they see themselves as true free speech um liberators and then and the playing prove a crucial role in that regard I have a strong tried and pushing back against government
request also issuing transparency reports where you can see how many times they have uh how many times they have accepted or accommodated a government request and under which conditions and at the same time the enforcement
of their old community standards of called community standards here it's called a bit differently depending on the service so the face of it would be um community standards and the use you would would be Community guidelines um on the Google search that it's a more narrow assume so there are a big variations but for simplicity here I speak about community standards as the kind of
Terms of Service enforcement that the platforms to the volume of things that I removed here how many many many times bigger than governments requests Facebook are told me recently that they have I think it was 1 million items flat each days each state by users who think that phase but you should look at this specific piece of content and potentially remove it yet the processes whereby
these decisions are made whereby their staff or outsourced staff look at the request the decisions they make the criteria for making this how much content is removed
for which reasons which content is not removed all that takes place in a complete black seen from the outside perspective it's it's simply not possible to get access to that data so you have a huge amount of content that's being regulated in processes that are completely closed to the outside and more importantly they are not seen as freedom of expression issues they are seen as a private company basically enforcing its its rules of engagement and from a strictly legal perspective rightly so because very strictly
legally speaking freedom of expression this about government restrictions In content on the Internet and even though I think most people also human rights lawyer with loss would agree that of course it has a freedom of expression indication how much content and major platform removes you cannot bring it before a court as a freedom of expression issue on lest you could really prove that there were no added ternative means of firms of expressing that content I have to run a bit with the time I see so very high volume and make of once by that I
mean that the the norms that decide which content is removed and which is not is a pure makes of something that's legal standards and something that's more stuff that we don't want uh because of other reasons that's because it's illegal to do but because it's found inappropriate or on bond unwanted or goes against the community norms and it's based
on on what they called enable watch program which basically means that we as users are the ones that are flagging the content that we find it problematic and then the service on the other side make decisions on what to do with that contents that's also coming from a freedom of expression I expect air
perspective that's also pretty problematic because freedom of expression is precisely meant to protect those expressions that the community might not like but nevertheless deserved to be there OK all rights to some of the
findings in relation to privacy um so the taken for granted context of these companies is what they call the personal information economy that's a new type of economy that's basically based on personal data is the key source of income I mean think about it all that well so basically comes from advertisements from targeting advertisements have based on all the things known about the user's that's what creates the wealth that's
the personal information economy that's the taken for granted context that's not something that's question and that basically means it's also so when you when
you when you post questions about that the answer will be well it's a free service right someone has to pay so the advertisers pay that so we can provide a free service to the users and up till now and tentative business models for example where users pay something a monthly rate or something
hasn't really been in the discourse the the the the pre setting is a free service and the personal information economy and that means that when you talk about privacy they will list all these all these increasing measures whereby users can control their privacy settings and there are increasing means of controlling your privacy settings but privacy control uh within this context basically mean that
you couldn't can control how you share information with other users it's what I call a front stage privacy control so I can control which uses or to see which information about me to some extent but the
back stage privacy control the flow that goes on behind my back between the company and between other affiliated partners of the company that's not what I mean that's not framed as a privacy issue that's the business model so you had the business model that's the prior the that's the backstage privacy handling and then you have privacy as front stage user control the way that we can the and navigate our information between others like ourselves using the service that's really
important to understand but that basically mean because it basically means that privacy is not limits on data collection which is a key principle in European Data Protection on OK I'll finish up and so some of the uh just listed some of the key challenges 1 of the business model that I really
think we need to question and to challenge and to discuss with these partners the quadrants state next so I haven't addressed that very much today but
basically the interchange of data between state powers and corporate power that we know so rarely do still then there is the mean of all these major actors they are US companies and there's a sense at least from the people have spoken to
off European privacy of Europeans being overly concerned with privacy in a way that's a bit on in incomprehensible to most Americans at least the ones of spoken to um because it's just a very different conception of privacy and the way that that that many Europeans have privacy is something that's really essentially linked to our identity and autonomy it's quite different from the US
perspective and I don't think we need to get that up on the table and speak to that more openly and address that more openly because With these global data
flows these underlying assumptions these underlying so of contestation needs to be addressed if we ever to to get some kind of more global agreement on these issues then we have the consenting uses
data protection is basically based on on Kuhn's user consent in the European model and all all practically all users consent as a premise for using the services that also put some limits
on on what we can then demand afterwards in terms of data protection then there's the various states centered approach to human rights that are found within these corporate instances and finally what I call the black box the black box of internal procedures around
especially content regulation that is also treated as trade secrets mean that we can't we can't really get into a dialog on that the OK I think I'll finish here thank you if
thank you very much of the here and conditions for this inspiring talk and we unfortunately don't have the time used to us some organizations with please feel free to find reading here at the Republican I think she also around in the whole day OK yes tell the and the
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