by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
In nearly three decades, the Internet has evolved from being an innovation in communication technologies into an economic addon then into a tool of radical social and economic transformation. By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the Internet, now dominated by social media platforms, wielded material and political power that surpassed that of many of the most developed nation-states. At one point in 2019, the wealth, in terms of market capitalization, controlled by some of the top technology companies, like Apple, was larger than the national GDP of 181 nations out of 195. For this fact alone, considering the impact of these technology companies on human rights, natural resources, and national sovereignty becomes dangerously overdue. This note surveys the origins and development of social media platforms and explains their impact on human rights.
_________________ Keywords: Human Rights, Cyber Colonialism, Social Media
The Internet has gone through four distinct stages: the plain text email phase lasting through the 1980’s, the dotcom phase during the 1990’s, the social media phase during the first decade of the 21st century, and the digital asset phase during the second decade of the 21st century and perhaps beyond.
The email innovation accelerated communication to virtual, near-live exchange of text-based correspondence around the world. By the year 1990, the plain text email technology, common mostly in educational institutions and governmental agencies, was adopted and adapted by commercial companies who upgraded it into html-email that allowed people to exchange not only textual messages, but also images and formatted documents. That coincided with the dotcom era.
The dotcom boom led by the likes of amazon.com, originally an online book seller, ushered in the idea of duplicating our real-world in the e-world. Individuals, companies, and other entities could purchase an Internet address (domain name) at the root-level, theirname.com (or .net or .org), and watch Internet surfers visit their virtual “home” and buy their products and services. At this stage, anyone willing and able could learn the html tagging language or hire a web designer to build a website and host it on a server of an Internet Service Provider (ISP) of their choice. This upgrade in digital technology did not just change the way people communicated, it created a new economy.
Businesses, especially, realized that their very existence was dependent on their ability to adapt to the Internet. Those who ignored this reality or were slow to adapt to it, vanished. The travel sector is a good example of businesses that came under immediate threat from the dotcom trend. Within months, travel agencies that did not transition at least some of their operations to the Internet went out of business. By 1996, the transformation of Travelocity into the first website of its kind that allowed customers to book tickets without a travel agent changed that sector in profound ways. In fact, that trend forced five major airlines to collaborate and create Orbitz.com, primarily as a travel fare aggregator. The same pattern transformed the travel industry applied to other business sectors. At this stage, the power of the Internet to obliterate national borders and extend customer bases beyond brick-and-mortar establishments became self-evident.
New innovations and offerings championed by social media sites like mySpace and Friendster emerged with the start of the 21st century. First, the power of social media to offer everyone who can use a computer the option to create a virtual identity for free. Second, social media platforms enabled Internet users to bypass ISP. In other words, an Internet user, instead of registering and paying for a personal domain name like, theirname.com, could now build an identity within the infrastructure of the social media platform using a handle or username like socialmedia.com/theirname. The most transformative addition was the piece of code that social media sites made available to websites to allow their visitors to engage with the content, via like, share, and follow buttons.
Social media did not fully replace the dotcom world. It massified the use of the Internet, incentivized through psychological and mental gimmicks, and near-monopolized its monetization. Companies continued to build and instrumentalize their websites. However. they became compelled by the new trend to place social media engagement buttons and other social interactivity scripts on their websites to capitalize on the integrative tools provided by social media platforms. Having a website with short, memorable URL lost its utility in favor of social media integration that allowed anyone to share short and long URLs with the click of a button. The websites that continued to exist and attract visitors are those that commodified content, turning it into digital assets. Social media platforms’ digital assets are the data and content of users who sign up for accounts on the platforms.
Social media platforms justified their use and abuse of users’ private data by claiming that their commodification of users’ data was justified by the free use of the platforms’ resources including diskspace, bandwidth, sharing tools, and other services provided to them for free. Notwithstanding the fact that nothing is really free, their claim is inaccurate for other reasons. At minimum, there is no way to ascertain that such a barter—platforms’ access and trade with users’ private data in return for users’ access to social media resources—was a fair one since no reliable alternative—paid or revenue-sharing social media outlet—was allowed to exist. Facebook, through exclusive agreements with some phone companies, purchase of competitors (like Instagram), and deals with some governments made sure that no viable alternatives were available. The deals Facebook made with authoritarian governments was the more troubling relevant to human rights.
The era of digital assets is escalating with innovation in the Blockchain technology. Blockchain, as a system of recording information in a way that makes it near-impossible to change or hack, opened the door for digital currencies, the most prominent example of which is the highly valued Bitcoin. It is only natural, then, that giant social media platforms would transition into adopting digital currencies, and sure enough, Facebook developed plans to offer its own digital currency. When that happens, Facebook will be transformed into a powerful, almost-sovereign, “state” with access to data of nearly 20% of the world’s population.
In terms of control over global resources and wealth, it suffices to mention at this juncture that the top five wealthiest companies in the world by market capitalization are all technology and Internet companies: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon.com, Google, and Facebook—and they are all headquartered in one country—the United States.
The power of technology companies is not limited to wealth. Internet companies have evolved to exert undeniable and unmatched impact on social and political matters globally.
During the first decade of the 21st century, mobile phones, email, and chat apps were instrumental in coordinating the so-called Colored Revolutions—social unrest and uprisings in countries previously under the control or influence of the Soviet Union, socialism, and/or autonomous. Some of these Colored Revolutions that benefited from the Internet took place in Serbia (2000), Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004), Kyrgyzstan (Tulip, 2005), Iran (Green Revolution, 2009), and Kyrgyzstan (Melon Revolution, 2010). By the end of 2010, on December 17, social media platforms, coupled the power of the mobile phone, email, and chat with the utility of digital camera and the GPS, transformed the way social movements organize and share information, as shown during the event that triggered the Tunisian revolution.
Memes of the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire in a public square to protest government corruption and failures became iconic on social media. Through social media, protesters coordinated their activities and broadcasted their actions, bypassing traditional media outlets, most of which were/are under the direct or indirect control of governments. By January 14, 2011, the Tunisian president was forced to leave the country, inspiring people in other Arab countries to rise-up in a series of dramatic events romanticized by Western commentators as the Arab Spring. In a domino-effect fashion, more uprisings took place in almost all Arab countries including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq.
Social media platforms, especially Facebook, took full credit for the fall of some authoritarian regimes and slide of some countries into destructive proxy-wars. The CEO of Facebook bragged about the role of his platform in creating an open and connected society around the world and enabling radical social change. However, when US authorities found that foreign governments have used Facebook to spread disinformation that interfered with the 2016 elections, Facebook did not want to take credit (responsibility).
Four years later, during the 2020 elections, Facebook and Twitter were forced to alter their algorithms to manage the spread of information and disinformation that could impact the outcome of the contentious presidential elections. The power of social media to disrupt and subvert was not limited to the giants of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The newcomer, TikTock, too, flexed its muscle during the 2020 presidential election campaign.
In June 2020, it was reported that TikTok users may have sunk Trump’s first rally after the pandemic shutdown. Trump, clearly irritated by the outcome of his hyped rally that did not materialize, threatened to ban the platform. He threatened to use Executive Order power to shut down some social media platforms and he pressured Congress to change the law that allowed them to escape accountability for the kind of speech they broadcast on their platforms (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). Congressional committees called their CEOs to answer questions and state and federal attorneys general charged them with antitrust law violations.
Social media platforms have maintained that they are not publishing entities and therefore cannot maintain editorial standards or police and/or censor speech. However, the algorithms they apply, as shown during the 2020 elections, can be and were altered and manipulated to produce specific outcomes. They customize users’ experience to a level of censorship–self-censorship included–and they provide advertisers with data that allow them to target specific demographics, essentially enabling discrimination. All the while, social media companies bank income derived from user-generated content and through the sales of users’ data.
Initially motivated by privacy concerns and later moved by antitrust concerns, the EU settled on a deliberate course of actions to regulate the digital space. In 2016, the European Parliament and Council of the European Union authored the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (GDPR), an EU law focused on data protection and privacy in the European Union. Specifically, the GDPR regulates the transfer of personal data outside the EU and EEA areas. Just this year (2020), the European Commission proposed a comprehensive regime of rules for all digital services, including social media, online marketplaces, and other digital platforms that operate in the European Union: The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act (DSADMA). If the Global North sees a need for such protective measures, it is reasonable to assume that other sovereign states would have national interest that would require them to take similar steps not only to protect digital data and rights of their citizens, but also to benefit from cross border trade. A company headquartered in California, USA doing business in Dhaka, Bangladesh should not be entitled to transfer all the wealth generated in Bangladesh to the USA. There must be a fair formula that protects indigenous peoples’ economic, social, and environmental rights.
Social media companies have reproduced the kind of controlling monopolies that mimic those of land-owning lords who abused serfs and enslaved human beings to hoard and augment wealth and property. Majority owners of Facebook could claim that they coerced no one to publish on their platform. However, their crushing of competitors who resist being purchased by Facebook is the hallmark practice of a hoarder of resources and wealth.
Indeed, Facebook may have helped make communities open and connected. However, Facebook also exploits users, hoards resources, abuses privacy, enables the dissemination of disinformation, facilitates orchestrated unrest, reproduces inequity, discriminates against marginalized social groups, enables racism, and facilitates human rights abuses. It answers only to its majority shareholders and to the government of the country wherein it is headquartered. Money and wealth generated in one country are transferred to another and data of citizens of one country are sold in another.
Social media platforms and information technologies are tools. They are supposed to enable us do things more efficiently. There is no denying the positive aspects of the Internet and its derivatives. However, there is also no doubt that social media platforms, as configured today, have been monopolized and instrumentalized to levels that make the harm done to marginalized communities outweigh the benefit they might gain. Facebook cooperates with authoritarian governments. Such cooperation and exclusive deals risk the lives and freedom of human rights advocates and plunder the resources of indigenous communities.
State and federal law enforcement agencies in the United State are now paying attention to the unchecked power and influence exerted by Facebook and other digital platforms. Their concern is limited to antitrust matters. The harm to indigenous communities is unlikely to be addressed by national governments of the Global South either. However, civil society institutions should pressure their governments and international organizations, including UN agencies and the Human Rights Council, to invoke the same rights the EU have invoked to protect the privacy and resources of the people within their border. At minimum, national governments must regulate the way cross-border social media and ecommerce platforms operate including measures to protect users’ data by mandating that such data are used on local servers, regulations that oblige them to employ local staff, and tax laws that protect wealth generated within the borders of their countries and to use the revenues to rehabilitate the natural resources they degrade.
Facebook has resisted any regulatory action intended to protect the privacy of its users. It absorbed other social media platforms in a drive to eliminate competition. Facebook worked with some corrupt governments to strike exclusive agreements to lock out local markets in the face of indigenous innovators and entrepreneurs. Facebook profits from the labor of its users, hoards wealth and resources, and transfer the profit out of indigenous communities. Facebook reproduced the exploitative practices of greedy colonizers and therefore should be treated as an exploitative, abusive cyber colonizer.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.