16 Mar Facebook’s Commitment to Human Rights
[Miranda Sissons is the Human Rights Director at Facebook. Facebook has agreed to engage in a Q & A session to be published on Opinio Juris next week.]
The human rights movement long predates the rise of social media. That’s a very good thing.
Three decades ago, we faxed or telexed urgent actions between groups and desperately wondered how to pay for them. Two decades ago, governments censored our publications by refusing licences, losing permits, or blocking the supply of paper. Ten years ago, many of us were thrilled when citizens used the free, upstart tools of social media to organize, articulate, and indelibly document uprisings against Arab regimes.
Since then, social media has become commonplace, but Big Tech’s reputation in the human rights world has plummeted. As Director of Human Rights at Facebook, I often hear assertions that social media is an existential threat to democracy; that tech companies inherently violate privacy through their business models; that tech platforms’ algorithms inevitably spread hate speech and incitement against racial and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ+ communities, and human rights defenders.
There is no question that we, and other social media and tech companies, have been slow to recognize and address their adverse human rights impacts. Social media is a specialized field; its operations and technologies can seem opaque. Tech company cultures, rules, and operations seem (and oftentimes are) so fundamentally different from the laws, principles, and treaties that have, for so long, formed the bedrock of rights activism and norm development.
But since the digital environment is increasingly the space where our rights are fulfilled—or violated—it’s vital that tech companies define and demonstrate what it takes to meaningfully respect rights, as mandated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
Companies aren’t states. They don’t have treaty-based obligations to “protect” human rights, as hollow as that obligation can be in practice. But they should know (and show, through transparent reporting) their human rights risks; prioritize, prevent, or mitigate adverse human rights impacts; and ensure access to remedies, in line with the UNGP framework.
Today, Facebook is making important progress in its rights journey. We are launching a corporate human rights policy. It’s just one step on a long road —but an important one.
Given that corporate policies can often be boring, here is what you should know:
First, it’s important to recognize that tech company human rights policies vary. It’s worth comparing them, just as it’s worth comparing actual practice (which is, of course, still earlier in its development in tech than in other business sectors, many of which focus primarily on supply chain risk).
Second: In our policy, Facebook commits to respecting human rights as set out by the UNGPs, together with the International Bill of Rights, and a broad set of other international instruments. This is not a minimalist posture.
Third: Our policy does more than just aspire towards some lofty goal. We share details of how we implement our rights commitments – in our product development, our business operations, and our policy development. We specify the business leaders and board reporting structures that are essential for accountability and enforcement.
Fourth: We commit to a new, annual human rights report, something very few companies do. As a company that provides tools for users to create and distribute content, Facebook faces a far wider set of salient human rights risks than other businesses. Building from our strong recent history of due diligence disclosure, our goal is to provide detailed insight into how we define, research, and manage our human rights risks.
Finally: We’ve worked over the years to support human rights defenders who use our platform and now we’re creating a fund that will give offline assistance to human rights defenders facing critical threats and support new digital security efforts, beginning in Asia later this year. We will also build on our existing work to protect defenders’ accounts—efforts that include combatting advanced threat actors targeting them, protecting them from incorrect content removals using Cross Check, offering advanced security options, taking steps to thwart unauthorized access to the accounts of defenders who are arrested or detained, and partnering with human rights organizations on outreach and training. We want Facebook to be a place where human rights defenders can be protected but also, a platform that welcomes them to create community and promote human rights values.
In developing and implementing this policy, we recognize the gargantuan task ahead of us. We are a business with billions of users who generate more than 100 billion pieces of content daily on multiple platforms. We have long supply chains and sometimes competing regulatory frameworks. We host essential tools and space for human rights defenders. Our tools have been weaponized as an adversarial playing field for bad actors. We operate without a global consensus on the limits of acceptable speech. And, we do so with a business model that provides free tools through targeted advertising, the underlying technologies of which are new and, at times, controversial.
So while navigating these tensions is not our sole responsibility, the feedback and insights we get from civil society are clear: We have to put one foot in front of the other. Follow the principles. Know the standards. Use the UNGPs. Be transparent. Show don’t tell. Learn from others. Do better.
We hope that, even to the critical eye, these are signs Facebook is making progress. In recent years, we have published our Human Rights Impact Assessments, established an independent Oversight Board, voluntarily disclosed data to the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, and worked extensively to protect elections and minimize violent conflict. Today’s policy launch is another, real step. We have to make these efforts meaningful while moderating content, protecting human rights defenders, pushing back against repressive governments, and supporting the quest for rights-respecting regulation that won’t silence the internet. To our observers and critics: Keep up the pressure. We need your insight. Share your scrutiny. Know that we’re using the UNGPs and other frameworks to send the message: rights matter.