Pushing Back Against the Tech Giants

Labour's plan to introduce a 'Charter of Digital Rights' is an urgently needed response to corporate surveillance, algorithmic interference in politics and the data-for-profit industry.

While documents recently leaked suggest the Tories are willing to sacrifice our digital rights on the altar of Brexit, Labour’s plans to protect digital rights have so far received little attention.

There has been a lot of public discussion of Labour’s programme for a British Broadband public service, but little covered was Labour’s simultaneous announcement of a plan to create a ‘Charter for Digital Rights.’ The policy deserves attention as UK protection of digital rights online is long overdue and necessary for the protection of the most basic human rights. 

The Charter for Digital Rights would be created on the basis of consultation with the public and is likely to include rights for individuals to protect access to and take ownership of their data. The Charter may also contain powers for individuals and collectives to prevent the use of digital infrastructure for surveillance and challenge algorithmic injustice where online algorithms cause disproportionate harms to particular groups. Such provisions would be an important step towards protecting our human rights which are currently under threat in digital communications. 

The threat to basic human rights in part stems from the practices of tech giants who dominate our online space. In the first instance, this is through corporate surveillance. Only last month, Amnesty International published an important report on the ‘surveillance giants’ Google and Facebook. The report refers to the ‘systemic cost’ people pay to use the services of Google and Facebook. Instead of money, we pay for these services by giving these companies what is essentially a blank cheque to collect our most intimate data. The data that is extracted extends far beyond online platforms to our location, the apps we use, and even to our offline physical interactions through companies accessing our video cameras and microphones. 

The amount of data being collected by tech companies is on a titanic scale – a third of the global population use a Facebook-owned service every day (in the form of either Facebook, WhatApp and Instagram) and Google accounts for around ninety percent of global search engine use. This data is then stored in incomprehensibly large databases and sold for billions of dollars to companies across the globe.

This process concentrates unprecedented power into a handful of companies whose revenue exceeds that of many governments. In addition to threatening the power of democratically elected governments and obviously undermining our right to privacy, this colossal data collection threatens other basic human rights. This includes our right to freedom of expression which gets limited as more of our social interactions are constrained to online platforms which are public even while ‘private messaging’.  

Establishing a Charter for Digital Rights would help to tackle this problem of corporate surveillance. Through asserting a UK right to own our and protect access to our data, we can start to establish a new paradigm in digital communications. Rather than operating on the presumption that with a click of an ‘accept’ button we can sign away our most personal information to a plethora of corporate channels, the presumption can be that the data is ours whatever the circumstances. One of the key consequences of this ownership should mean that any transfer of our data is possible to track  and relatively simple to delete at any time. 

The threat to basic rights from tech companies also stems from their reliance on algorithms to manage our online activity and gain insight from the vast quantities of raw data harvested from our lives. These algorithmic systems are used to pre-empt our behaviour and nudge us towards making decisions in companies’ interests.  For example, as a recent report from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office makes clear, these predictive systems are designed to maximise their influence over us using intimate knowledge of our lives in order to track when we might be most vulnerable to advertising selling their products. This has a destructive impact on our right to freedom of thought, particularly as the systems are often designed to influence us in way which are hard to notice. Again, with a right of ownership over our data we make important steps to begin to tackle this problem. 

These algorithmic systems have also been repeatedly exposed as a risk to our right to non-discrimination. This is due to these systems often relying on profiling carried out to differentiate people based on personal characteristics, including protected characteristics such as sexual orientation and ethnicity. Facebook permitted advertisers, including for political ads, to target ads on the basis of these categories. Furthermore, a Facebook algorithm designed to remove online hate speech was found in 2017 to provide better protections for white men over children of colour when assessing objectionable content.

A Charter for Digital Rights could also help with these kinds of problems. If it establishes a means of redress for those who are being disproportionately targeted by algorithmic systems, this will provide an important channel for accountability. It will also help to realign the priorities of companies producing such systems and incentivise them to prevent discriminatory effects. 

While tech companies represent a threat to basic human rights so do governments, and this another issue that a Charter for Digital Rights can help to tackle. Some have expressed concerns that a British Broadband public service end up giving the government a backdoor to our data and means to control the internet. However, Labour plans to establish a body that is institutionally independent from the government to be implement and run the service. It would be held accountable through legislation rather than accountable to the government.

The work of this independent institution should clearly be led by the Charter for Digital Rights and not the interests of government. A rights-based approach can provide a crucial bulwark against the abuse of power by the state. State surveillance is an ongoing cause for concern in the UK. Important investigative work carried out by Liberty shows that the Conservative government has in the last few years engaged in deeply intrusive bulk-dating sharing practices for the purpose of enforcing the hostile environment. Furthermore, UK surveillance law is also currently under scrutiny by the European Court of Human Rights, with its initial findings suggesting that the current law is too broad containing insufficient safeguards to protect against abuse. 

A Charter of Digital Rights could empower us against state surveillance. For example, the Charter could provide us with the right to notification which informs citizens after they have been the subject of state digital surveillance. This would provide individuals with the opportunity to challenge state surveillance if it is suspected to have been disproportionate. 

Finally, a related issue is the ability for the internet to be manipulated for political interests. The potential for this to occur was made painfully transparent by the Cambridge Analytica scandal which revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of peoples’ Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes.

The current election has brought into sharp view the problems we face with online platforms being exploited to spread disinformation for party political gain. Journalists across the political spectrum have accused the Conservative Party of running a campaign with disinformation at its centre. This has led to Facebook taking down one of its campaign videos and Twitter threatening to ban its Twitter account after its account masqueraded as a fact-checking website during an election debate.

While these are important gestures, they are not capable of containing the damage the done by disinformation in this context. Not only does the spread of disinformation shake the foundations of any democracy but undermines our basic right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive information under the European Convention on Human Rights.

How to regulate and prevent the spread of disinformation is a complex social problem for which there is no quick fix. This is not a problem that can be solved by merely passing legislation, because there is currently no clear consensus in society as to where the line may be drawn between what counts as removing hate speech and censoring, as well as what kind of institution has legitimate authority to draw this line.

This is why a public consultation on this issue, for the purpose of drawing up a Charter for Digital Rights, could be crucial. The problem of disinformation is not going away and we need to begin a public conversation about the best way of tackling it. The future of our democracy depends on such a conversation.