UN chief pushes for Big Tech regulation amid global row

Social media firms are rapidly turning the world into a ‘22nd-century dystopia’, says Antonio Guterres

FILE - This March 29, 2018, file photo shows the Facebook logo on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York's Times Square. For years, Facebook has been in a defensive crouch amid a slew of privacy scandals, antitrust lawsuits and charges that it was letting hate speech and extremism destroy democracy. Early Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, though, it abruptly pivoted to take the offensive in Australia, where it lowered the boom on publishers and the government with a sudden decision to block news on its platform across the entire country. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday swiped at Silicon Valley fat cats, saying they had grown too rich and powerful from capitalising on the “vast library” of user data they were secretly amassing.

Addressing the UN’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council, Mr Guterres urged governments to regulate social media platforms, which include Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to better protect users’ data.

US, European and Canadian regulators are currently probing Big Tech’s dominance of digital advertising, while Australia’s government is embroiled in a row over making Facebook and Google pay news outlets for sharing their content.

“A vast library of information is being assembled about each of us. Yet we don’t really have the keys to that library,” said Mr Guterres.

“We don’t know how this information has been collected, by whom or for what purposes. That data is being used commercially — for advertising, for marketing and for beefing up corporate bottom lines.”

Mr Guterres said tech platforms were seeing an “ever-greater concentration of wealth and inequality” in a world that was rapidly resembling an Orwellian “22nd-century dystopia”.

“Our data is also being used to shape and manipulate our perceptions, without our ever realizing it,” Mr Guterres said in a pre-recorded video.

“Governments can exploit that data to control the behaviour of their own citizens, violating human rights of individuals or groups.”

The former prime minister of Portugal urged governments to pass laws and regulate technology firms and promote a “safe, equitable and open digital future that does not infringe on privacy or dignity”.

Mr Guterres also tackled gender parity, right-wing extremism and unequal access to coronavirus vaccines in a speech that presented a bleak global human rights situation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last month, Mr Guterres said he was worried about social media firms having “too much power” to decide about closing accounts, shortly after Twitter banned former US President Donald Trump from its platform over the 6 January violence in Washington.