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Facebook finally introduces corporate human rights policy

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Facebook on March 16 announced the launch of a corporate human rights policy that governs its business operations, apps and products, policies, and programming. The social media giant finally joins other tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon who already have such a policy in place. The new policy comes after Facebook has been repeatedly criticized for its handling of human rights violations in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico and India.

The new policy, based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and other internationally recognized human rights covenants, sets out the human rights standards that apply to the platform’s overall approach to business. As part of this policy, the Board of Directors will be informed about any critical human rights issues such as risks to freedom of speech and expression. The policy also mandates the release of a public report annually that highlights how the company is addressing human rights concerns.

Facebook will implement the new policy based on the approach provided by the UNGPs, which includes applying human rights policies, conducting human rights due diligence and disclosure, providing access to remedy, maintaining oversight, governance, and accountability, and protecting human rights defenders. In case there is a conflict between the domestic laws of a country and internationally recognised human rights, Facebook will seek to promote and honour the latter, the guidelines stated.

Alongside the policy, Facebook also launched a new fund to support human rights defenders. This fund will give assistance to those who are facing critical threats and will also provide funding for new digital security efforts. In addition to the offline assistance, Facebook will also help human rights defenders to combat malicious actors on the platform, protect them from incorrect content removal, offer advanced security features, prevent unauthorised access to the accounts of detained or arrested defenders, and provide outreach and training to defenders through its partnership with human rights organization.

A catalogue of existing standards

The new policy does not introduce many new standards. It is rather a framework presenting and formalising existing policies, guidelines, principles and practices, such as the community standards, privacy policies, and code of conduct, all in one place.

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The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has critiqued Facebook for compiling outdated policies that have a number of unaddressed issues. For example, Facebook reiterated its commitment to the community standards that govern what content is allowed on the platform but fails to be more transparent on how it moderates content in the first place.  IFF has also pointed out that Facebook has not specified the particulars of the annual report it will publish, leaving room for doubts as to whether it will publish any information that is adverse to the company. Facebook also does not provide for an independent rights audit in the various countries it operates in.

Facebook will not undermine encryption

In February, the Indian government announced the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 that mandates messaging platforms to be able to trace the first originator of a message. This provision is controversial because it might require the breaking of end-to-end encryption on platforms like WhatsApp and Signal. In light of this, the IFF welcomes Facebook commitment to “challenge any order that sought to have us [Facebook] redesign our systems to undermine the encryption we provide to protect people’s data.”

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