Facebook Reform Must Be Seen as a Global Matter

This article first appeared on Techonomy.


Facebook is a company that responds to pressure, and to lawsuits, but we in the Global South, at least as much affected by its harms as users in the United States, are at a significant disadvantage in wielding such tools on our own behalf. That has generally meant we have made less progress towards remediating Facebook’s social harm.

The newly-released Civil Rights Audit (CRA) of Facebook mentions the word “settlement” 20 times. The CRA was commissioned by the company two years ago but is devastatingly critical of its behavior, proclaiming some of Facebook’s actions “significant setbacks for human rights.” The first time the word is mentioned is in the context of a civil rights settlement in March 2019, which compelled the company to adopt a system for advertising on topics like real estate that didn’t allow discrimination by age, gender or U.S. ZIP code. The CRA ends with the privacy changes brought about by a $5 billion settlement last year with the Federal Trade Commission, pegged to allegations that the company gave third parties access to data without the consent of users. The CRA notes that despite this settlement, there are enduring concerns around holding the company accountable for policies and practices that led to privacy violations, and not for the first time.

Though Laura Murphy, the primary author of the CRA, does not explicitly flag it in the report, I was struck by the degree to which lawsuits in the US, both class actions and other cases, have been an engine of policy revision and course-correction for Facebook over many years.

Facebook is, by all available evidence, unwilling and unable to embrace civil rights fundamentals, including non-discrimination and actions to combat racism, without being taken to court. Significant policy and algorithmic decisions including course-correction have generally only come about in the wake of legal settlements. I find this quite extraordinary. Here we have a company that is inextricably entwined into the socio-political, commercial, cultural and economic DNA of hundreds of countries around the world resisting at every turn calls to embrace civil rights as a central pillar of corporate governance and content regulation. How did we end up here?

Researchers around the world like myself have for years, with extensive and grounded evidence, expressed our growing concern around the abuse of Facebook’s core platforms and products. For us, there is a direct and enduring connection between what is highlighted in this report pegged to civil rights in the U.S. and human rights considerations more globally. I would argue that the significant concerns articulated in the CRA – which is unsparing in its critique of company, policies and leadership – may have even more impact on the civil rights of billions of users outside the U.S. than those in the company’s home country.

The implications of the numerous U.S. lawsuits and settlements go far beyond its geographic territory. They are political and thus impact a global community. Facebook’s reach eclipses the British Empire at the height of colonialism. What happens in the U.S. by way of settlements and lawsuits shapes policies, practices, algorithms and a whole raft of other means through which content and conversations on Facebook’s platforms are governed. American readers of the CRA may not realize the extent to which what is in the report influences and impacts those like myself, thousands of miles away. (I am a citizen of Sri Lanka living and studying in New Zealand, where I am completing a PhD dissertation on the impact of social media on social discord in Sri Lanka.)

But institutions and individuals in the Global South and in countries like Sri Lanka or Myanmar which have been significantly scarred by the abuse of Facebook platforms, simply do not have access to financial or human resource to go up against the company’s armada of highly talented lawyers. We are thus at a significant disadvantage compared to our American counterparts in forcing the company to be less discriminatory or racist.

And therein lies the rub. While most media attention and pushback is around the awful toxicity the company’s platforms have become a Petrie dish for, the CRA report flags the degree to which the company’s internal culture and senior leadership condone content that incites violence and hate. I don’t know how a company like this ended up as an integral part of our global democratic fabric and future.

What the CRA report re-affirms for researchers outside the US is something known to us only too well. The Global South is hostage to, even if it also benefits from, lawsuits brought against the company in the U.S. and the settlements it makes there.

When I first started bringing Facebook’s social harms to its attention about five years ago, I was initially angered by the company’s insouciance despite the presentation of hard evidence about its harms. I now try to help – pro bono – a few within the company who are deeply committed to human rights standards and frameworks.

Now what I see needed in addition is greater collaboration between advocacy and legal teams from the Global South and counterparts like the ACLU and others in the US. There is real and rich potential if we can work more closely together.

Will we make a difference? I risk disappointment to hope we can. The alternative – of allowing the status quo to continue – is much more chilling. It is simply not an option.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a longtime Sri Lankan digital rights activist and special advisor to the ICT4Peace FoundationHe spoke about Facebook on a legendary panel at the Techonomy 2018 conference.

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