Surveillance by tech giants Facebook and Google poses a "systemic threat to human rights", Amnesty International has warned in a new report, which calls for a "radical overhaul" of their core activity.
The Surveillance Giants report said the two companies’ business models were “inherently incompatible” with the right to privacy and also posed a systemic threat to rights such as freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought and the right to equality and non-discrimination.
"Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives – amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetising the personal data of billions of people," said Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.
“Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era.”
Amnesty said that while other tech companies – including Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – had accrued significant power, it was the platforms owned by Facebook and Google that have become fundamental to how people engage and interact with each other.
Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. Google is the parent company of YouTube, while its Android operating system underpins the majority of the world's smartphones.
Users are paying for their fee-less services with their intimate personal data as they are constantly tracked through their web usage and through connected devices.
“The internet is vital for people to enjoy many of their rights, yet billions of people have no meaningful choice but to access this public space on terms dictated by Facebook and Google,” Mr O’Gorman said.
“Either we must submit to this pervasive surveillance machinery – where our data is easily weaponised to manipulate and influence us – or forgo the benefits of the digital world. This can never be a legitimate choice. We must reclaim this essential public square, so we can participate without having our rights abused.”
Governments must urgently take action such as the enforcement of data-protection laws and effective regulation of Facebook and Google in line with human rights law, Amnesty said.
As a first step, the companies should be prevented from making access to their service conditional on individuals “consenting” to the collection, processing or sharing of their personal data for marketing or advertising.