Tech Companies Oppose Australia’s Surveillance Plan, Google Appeals Global Expansion of EU’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ Ruling, Facebook and Twitter Ban Accounts

September 14, 2018

Corporate Accountability News Highlights is a regular series by Ranking Digital Rights highlighting key news related to tech companies, freedom of expression, and privacy issues around the world.

Tech companies oppose Australia’s surveillance bill

A group of top tech giants that includes Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oath and Twitter has condemned a draft surveillance bill proposed by the Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs. The measures would require tech companies to aid law enforcement in decoding encrypted communications or face fines of up to A$10 million ($7.1 million). The government insists the legislation is needed to curb increasingly sophisticated criminal activity and will not undermine encryption, but critics say that the measures could compromise security and give authorities spying powers without proper judicial oversight.

The draft legislation represents a growing trend by governments around the worldincluding in the UK, the US, and Russiato seek access to encrypted communications, a move that security experts warn risks users’ security and privacy. Last October, the messaging app Telegram was fined for refusing to turn over encryption keys to Russian authorities.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression asserts that encryption and anonymity are essential for enabling people to exercise their human rights. Governments should refrain from enacting regulations that undermine encryption or weaken encryption standards, in order to avoid unintended consequences for freedom of expression. The 2018 Corporate Accountability Index also recommends that companies should publicly commit to implementing the highest encryption standards available and permissible by law.

Google appeals global expansion of EU’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ ruling

Google and French regulators were back in Europe’s top court this week to argue about applying the controversial “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling worldwide. The French privacy watchdog has been pushing to expand the ruling to Google sites globally, a move heavily criticized by the company and rights groups for threatening free speech.

The 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice (Google v Spain) requires search engines to remove “irrelevant and outdated” links at the request of individuals who believe the material violates their privacyeven if the information is lawful. The original ruling sparked outcry from free press advocates and media outlets, who warned that it limits access to information and can be abused by public figures to remove embarrassing information that the public has a right to know.

The ruling also triggered a wave of legal issues over how, when, and in what jurisdictions Google should remove links to search results. Google has complied with the ruling on all European versions of its search engine but not to domains outside Europe. French data regulators in 2016 challenged the company after receiving complaints that content had not been taken down, and fined Google EUR 100,000 ($116,000) for not removing links on its search engines outside of Europe. The regulator demanded that Google delist content on all Google sites globally.

At a hearing at the European Court of Justice this week, Google argued that applying the ruling to all of its search sites outside of Europe would constitute an unreasonable interference with freedom of expression and information and lead to conflicts with countries that don’t recognize the ruling. The European Commission agrees.

In accordance with international human rights law, restrictions on freedom of expression is not permissible except where proportionate and justifiable. Companies must therefore demonstrate a strong commitment to transparency by clearly disclosing their processes for responding to private requests to remove or restrict content. Companies should also regularly disclose data about such requests.

Social media platforms make moves to police hateful content

Facebook and Twitter this week took moves to ban hateful content and the spread of misinformation on their platforms. Twitter permanently banned rightwing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, while Facebook permanently banned the accounts of 18 military officials in Myanmar including the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as well as 52 related pages with a combined following of nearly 12 million people.

Twitter joins a handful of other social media companies to ban Jones from their platforms, including Facebook, Apple, and Spotify (Jones’ InfoWars remains active on Google’s Play Store, Newsweek reports). Facebook’s decision to ban the accounts of several Myanmar military officials follows a United Nations report highlighting the Myanmar military’s use of the platform in inflaming ethnic and religious tensions. A recent Reuters investigative report also forced Facebook to admit it had been “too slow to act” in removing content that was fueling violence.

Social media companies in recent months have come under growing criticism for failing to  better police content, and for lacking clarity about their rules and how they are enforced. As noted by the 2018 Corporate Accountability Index, companies should clearly disclose what types of content and activities they prohibit on their services and the process for enforcing these rules. They should also publish data about the volume and nature of content or accounts they have removed or restricted for violating their terms of service. While Facebook and Twitter have made some progress in this area, both still fall short of being fully transparent.