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Facebook’s Human Rights Policy Lacks Key Commitments, Experts Say

By Robert Bateman

Facebook has released a “Corporate Human Rights Policy” on how the company manages privacy, freedom of expression, discrimination and other matters across its platforms. 

But experts told Digital Privacy News that the policy failed to address core issues with Facebook’s business model, such as targeted advertising and algorithmic decision-making.

For instance, Facebook promises in the policy — published in March — to commit to U.N. human rights standards, “protect privacy” and publish annual reports on its human rights impact.

“The new Corporate Human Rights Policy, which Facebook promises to continually build as a living document, lacks discussion of the company’s primary profit center — advertising — or its business development plans,” said Peter Micek, general counsel at the global human rights organization Access Now.

“Will Facebook shelve targeted advertising in our more privacy-conscious world?” he posed to Digital Privacy News. “Will this policy lead the company to recognize disinformation and destructive falsities as polluting byproducts of its attention-grabbing machine?

“It’s hard to see how a human rights policy alone will translate into the type of meaningful changes we really need to see from Facebook.”

Amy Brouillette, Ranking Digital Rights.

“Facebook must integrate the commitments in this policy across its business operations,” Micek said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Skirts the Major Problem’

Amy Brouillette, research director at the Washington-based research group Ranking Digital Rights, said that the policy was “a step in the right direction,” but that it “completely skirts the major problem of Facebook’s business model.” 

“It does not contain commitments to conduct human rights due diligence on its targeting policies or practices or on its development and use of algorithms,” Brouillette told Digital Privacy News.

“Facebook must integrate the commitments in this policy across its business operations.”

Peter Micek, Access Now.

“Without these fundamental safeguards, it’s hard to see how a human rights policy alone will translate into the type of meaningful changes we really need to see from Facebook and all platforms,” she said.

The policy also covers how Facebook will approach issues of freedom of expression.

‘Some Good Stuff’

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has accused Facebook of failing to strike a balance between removing harmful content and respecting its users’ rights to freedom of expression. 

However, York said she tentatively was positive about Facebook’s promises.

“At first glance, I’d say there’s some good stuff in there,” York told Digital Privacy News.

She underscored the company’s commitment to protecting users involved in the defense of human rights from account security threats and incorrect content takedowns.

“But it’s not clear to me how much of an impact this will have on wrongful takedowns,” York said. 

“It also feels like they’re not really doing any of the things around transparency and appeals that we’ve asked for.” 

York said she was glad Facebook had re-affirmed the Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which commit member organizations to “respect and work to protect the freedom of expression of their users.”

“It also feels like they’re not really doing any of the things around transparency and appeals that we’ve asked for.”

Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The principles were created with GNI’s founding in 2008. The group is based in Washington.

“Let’s see,” York told Digital Privacy News, “if they actually implement them this time.”

Robert Bateman is a writer in Brighton, U.K.

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