May 15, 2020

There have long been concerns around the misuse of personal data by the big tech companies. Now with many tech players thriving through the pandemic, and with potential solutions to managing the COVID-19 crisis – like contact tracing – tied to the use of our data, these concerns are amplified. What is the future of digital rights in a post-COVID world?

Imagine you were the dominant player in your field – an unassailable megabrand – and then suddenly, the government just shut down most of your competition. How do you think that would affect your business? This is the story of Amazon during the pandemic. And the results have been predictable.

By the start of May, Amazon’s ‘coronavirus’ stock price bump had surged 44 per cent from mid-March. And the online retailer wasn’t alone. Across the board, tech leaders saw their stocks jump: Facebook by 23 per cent, Google by 15 per cent and Apple by 14 per cent.

Throughout the COVID crisis, the strongest tech players have become stronger. That means more people using the technologies with much, much more potential for the misuse of personal data.

Digital rights is a well documented issue. Makan Delrahim, chief of the US Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, neatly summarized it in a Compliance Week article as the “collection, aggregation, and commercial use of consumer data … analogous to a new currency.”1 And the owners of that currency are not us. They are the big tech companies.

The growing value of consumer data in the context of increasing tech dominance is a bad combination. We discovered this firsthand in a collaborative engagement with Alphabet, the parent company of Google, where 80 investors – including NEI – representing $10T in assets requested a sit-down with Alphabet’s Board to discuss data privacy and other human rights concerns. We asked to address:

  • Lack of robust top-level governance and oversight of societal and adverse human rights impacts
  • Business model risks related to data use, content moderation, surveillance and digital human rights (such as privacy, freedom of expression and unintended consequences of AI)
  • Lack of stakeholder engagement, including with employees, customers and shareholders.

Our request was turned down. We found the response dismissive and disappointing. As a result, we are escalating our engagement with Alphabet. We have subsequently filed a shareholder proposal, asking them to adopt human rights oversight at the Board. If Alphabet does not challenge this action at the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission, and if we do not reach an agreement with the company, the proposal will be on the ballot at their Annual Shareholder Meeting in June 2020.

This action reflects the darker side of the technology industry. While it is often progressive on social issues like LGBTQ rights and environmental issues, its major players are consistently reluctant to address data privacy and human rights.

90% of Canadians own a cell phone. Potential privacy abuses by technology companies put almost all of us at risk. That’s why we will continue to advocate that privacy rights be at the core of the new digital economy – whether by protecting digital rights, ensuring online privacy, or understanding the intersection of human rights and artificial intelligence. And we will continue to push for rights-based dialogues with companies such as Alphabet and Amazon.

To learn more about our digital rights-focused engagement work, see our 2020 Focus List.

DOJ: Big Tech’s data collection creates ‘avenues for abuse’, Aly McDevitt, Compliance Week, November 12, 2019