We called out Facebook and Google but still need them. That's exactly the problem.

By Osama Bhutta, Global Director of Marketing and Communications

Marketers are presented with all sorts of problems with their work, but being on a platform predicated on human rights abuses isn’t normally one of them.

This is exactly what has happened to an industry reliant on Facebook and Google with the publication of Amnesty International’s latest report, Surveillance Giants.

These platforms allow people to access them supposedly for free, but instead of charging them a fee they require people to give up their personal data. This is then analysed to aggregate people into groups, and to make predictions about their interests and characteristics - primarily so they can use these insights to generate advertising revenue. The report found that the scale of harvesting and monetising of personal data by these platforms is incompatible with people’s right to privacy.

Even though the main calls in the report are to governments and how they must regulate the industry, it behoves us all to look at the roles we play.

At Amnesty, we are just as dependent on these platforms as big corporations, political parties, and local businesses in order to reach, engage and grow our audiences. The pervasive power of these platforms is exactly why Amnesty has brought out a report on them.

What are our options? We cannot vacate them. They aren’t just the public square any more. They are the main street and business district. They could become your doctor’s surgery and your bank. They are the whole darn town and village.

Taking our work off Facebook and Google right now would therefore be bad for human rights as it would hamper our ability to spread our message. There simply is no other viable alternative to reach the public.

For the time being then, the most ethical thing we can do is be open about our dilemma and what we are doing about it. We’ll keep talking with our audiences about this.  

I’ve heard people within the advertising industry say that no alternative can emerge to Facebook and Googles’ hegemony. What this ignores is that Silicon Valley is built on the romance of entrepreneurs starting in their garages. Something else may well be built in the months and years to come, especially if government creates the right environment for it.

That should be a spur to the tech giants to reform. They were once catalysts for freedom, playing major roles in the toppling of dictators. They played on this upstart quality for a long time. Now they are seen as part of a nexus of big corporate and political interests. This will bring in the cash in the short-term, but it does also open up the possibility for new entrants.

There will be many like Amnesty who are grappling with this conundrum. We are trying to pull off the difficult balancing act of carrying out our duty to spread our human rights message while spending money with companies profiting from problematic surveillance. The reputational risk grows with every scandal.

There are a lot of vested interests in how big tech currently works. Given they also operate extensive lobbying efforts on the very governments that should take action on them, there is every reason to think they can’t self-regulate. This is why we have also set up a taskforce to look at what future options may exist to reach and engage communities. We want to speak with people across the sector to think big. Please get in touch if you think you can help.

This is a tough hill to climb. We do it while holding our nose with one hand and holding a placard calling for reform with the other.

We’d love to hear your thoughts – what will the future of public engagement look like in years to come?