Big tech’s anti-democracy endeavours overseas and why you should be worried

Morning Star | March 28, 2019

LAST month, Apple and Google were put under intense public pressure to remove an app hosted on their platforms.

This app, launched in 2015 by the Saudi Arabian government, Absher, tracks the whereabouts of women, allowing men to control the women whose guardianship they handle.

More specifically, this app enables men to log the names and document identification numbers (eg passports) of women thus setting up a profile for how many journeys they are allowed to make, how long they may travel and what medical procedures they are allowed to undertake, if at all.

More troubling is that many Saudi men and women have stepped up in recent weeks to defend this app with Egyptian-American writer, Mona Eltahawy, initially condemning it and then asking her followers to read a response by a Saudi woman who said that Absher is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

While it is true that an app which tracks females in the kingdom as opposed to physical sequestering in past eras is simply a change of process, the reality is that big tech is cashing in on anti-democratic processes.

And, as many pointed out, Absher is the app to the government portal allowing Saudi citizens to register for driving licences and passports. It is still the platform that allows women to be surveilled and controlled which is hosted by two of the largest tech companies in the world.

On February 11, US Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, drafted a letter to these two companies asking them to take immediate action to prevent “your technical infrastructure, including your app stores, from being used by the Saudi government to enable the abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”

And Dana Ahmed, a Saudi researcher for Amnesty International, told Time magazine that Absher is yet another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women’s freedoms.

Imagine the agony of men who don’t know where their women are. Since Wyden’s letter, Google and Apple have been called out for their having hosted such an app on their platforms for many years and the questions go far beyond this one incident.

Last year, Google confirmed that it had been developing a censored version of its search engine under the codename Dragonfly since early 2017.

Dragonfly is merely the Google search engine which has incorporated the Chinese government’s blacklisted queries which filters out all the websites blocked by China’s internet censors, also known as the Great Firewall.

And the list of censored sites is not insignificant as it includes major Western media from Wikipedia, pro-democracy virtual spaces to financial sites.

Dragonfly also extends to Google’s other functions such as image search, spell check and the suggested search features.

After The Intercept exposed Google’s project last summer, its head of search Ben Gomes gave the BBC conflicting reports while Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, told the the Senate Commerce Committee that it was not sure if China censored its citizens.

Scroll back to 2010 when Google left the country because it learned that the Chinese government had been hacking Chinese dissidents’ Gmail accounts while also engaging in extensive censorship.

While issues like human rights and academic freedom are certainly not new to the country, China has been a convenient country for businesses and manufacturers to take advantage of a large workforce while being certain that their workers have no right to unionise independently and instead must defer to the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

Despite these barriers to freely organise or protest labour conditions in factories, Chinese workers are nevertheless the backbone to many of the planet’s demands such as low-cost production and rapid prototyping services, agriculture, and the service sector (43 per cent of domestic production).

If big tech like Apple and Google are throwing their support to anti-democratic technology while gaining economically from this multibillion-dollar market, who is to say those of us back home will not be in their sights next? And it’s already begun to happen.

Last year, Canadian feminist and writer Meghan Murphy was banned from Twitter along with many other women who have pushed back against gender ideology.

So when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified on foreign influence in elections through social media last year, we wanted to believe him.

Twitter’s continual ban of women from its platform speaks to how big tech is dangerously becoming the Great Inquisitor and censor of our era where now censorship is being rebranded.

Dorsey might think we believe his rebranding of censorship where he recently stated that his platform must now ask what we are amplifying when, in fact, nothing is really being discussed openly or transparently.

Twitter is simply cutting out voices that it doesn’t think fit into the public square it controls.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced that it will continue to host Absher. Equally disturbing, Google is also hosting Shinigami Eyes, an app that blacklists gender critical feminists’ social media accounts.

This plug-in which treads dangerously into the protections guaranteed under British privacy law and creating, in parallel to Saudi Arabia’s surveillance app of women, another tier of surveillance of women to be put on blacklists.

We must be vigilant of the human rights that big tech is having a hand in controlling and surveilling.

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