For this week’s episode, we are delighted to welcome Alina Utrata, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics and International Studies and a 2020 Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on the influence of technology on state and corporate power. She joins our host Muna Gasim and producer Sam Baron to discuss how Big Tech companies are impeding and restricting our human rights in the digital space, and what type of change is necessary to begin tackling this threat. Their conversation touches on the enormous amounts of power companies such as Facebook can wield on the global stage, and how poor data security can endanger and cost lives.
Although some tech companies try to adhere to their obligations set forth in international human rights frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Alina argues that these corporations still possess disproportionate amounts of power. As she points out, social media and other Big Tech companies are able to freely promote or suppress content on their own terms and with very limited oversight. She provides the recent example of Facebook’s removal of pages associated with the Myanmar military to illustrate how those at Facebook – namely Mark Zuckerberg – can freely decide what content the platform chooses to host or the crises the company decides to tackle.
Facebook’s removal of pages and accounts associated with the Myanmar military came several years after the UN concluded social media was playing an important role in the perpetuation and execution of genocide against the Rohingya people, with such platforms providing the military an outlet to disseminate misinformation, hate speech, and rhetoric throughout the broader population. As the podcast touched upon earlier in the season, the situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar remains dire. This begs the question: What influence could a ban on the military’s use of Facebook years earlier have done to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis? And are there ways we can more effectively pressure large tech companies to reform?
“Corporations have obligations to society”Alina Utrata
Underestimating the amount of power held by these corporations can have catastrophic consequences for activists or vulnerable groups across the world. During the conversation, Sam, Muna, and Alina all weigh in on the recent rise of the social networking app Clubhouse and how its poor data security protocols have left people in great danger. Though the app is banned in China, many Chinese citizens have accessed the site through VPNs, and worryingly, recent investigations have shown that the poor data security practices of the application have allowed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to access the data of those using the app, and identify potentially identify violators within their borders.
As Alina discusses, many activists using the app to discuss politically sensitive material such as the ongoing Uyghur crisis leaves them and their contacts vulnerable to surveillance and retribution by the CCP. Alongside a VICE article from a few months ago which revealed that the US military had been buying the data of users of a Muslim prayer app, Alina shows us how “everything that you do online is tracked” and tech companies can sometimes unwittingly or even intentionally aid invasions of personal privacy by the state.
The discussion concludes with Alina asking us to look at the bigger picture. To gain an understanding of the power corporations such as Facebook possess, we must begin to understand how they interact with other forces in our world, recognizing the relationship between big tech companies, repressive states, and issues like structural racism. Identifying the role of social media plays allows us to begin tackling the problem, and calling out hate speech on these platforms when we see it, and remaining conscious of the invasive powers they hold, are actionable steps we can take to mitigate digital risks.
ADDENDUM: Toward the beginning of the episode, Alina misspoke and says that “in Myanmar, Facebook is the military”, this should be “in Myanmar, Facebook is the internet.”
Alina’s podcast on the intersection of tech and politics, the ‘Anti-Dystopians‘: https://www.alinautrata.com/podcast
Just Security Coverage of the Nestle case
Alina’s podcast episode with Matt Mahmoudi on technology, migration, and racism: https://www.alinautrata.com/podcast/episode/5d36f3c3/the-digital-periphery-technology-migration-and-racial-capitalism and an article on Matt’s research https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/race-in-the-digital-periphery-the-new-old-politics-of-refugee-representation/
Alina’s blogpost about the privacy implications of Clubhouse: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/data-collection-can-be-a-death-sentence-clubhouse-in-china-shows-that-even-harmless-apps-may-put-individuals-in-harms-way/
Alina’s blogpost on how we should reform social media sites: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2020/12/02/seeing-like-a-social-media-site/
Alina’s blogpost about Facebook mimicking governments: https://powerswitchorg.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/should-you-have-a-right-to-a-facebook-account/
Facebook still runs discriminatory ads, new report finds – The Verge https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/26/21403025/facebook-discriminatory-ads-housing-job-credit-hud
Los Angeles police ‘wanted Amazon Ring BLM protest footage’