After nearly two decades in the dark, Facebook releases its human rights policy

Facebook today released a Corporate Human Rights Policy for the first time in its 17-year history, becoming the latest Big Tech company to publicly articulate its commitments to upholding human rights. While Access Now is encouraged by Facebook’s development of a comprehensive, cross-department policy,  this display of accountability comes far too late considering the global power the company has wielded since the early 2000s. It also raises more questions than answers around how Facebook will more effectively integrate human rights considerations into its day-to-day operations and strategic decision making. 

“We welcome Facebook’s new human rights policy, a necessary step for every company seeking to respect human rights. But 17 years is too long to wait for this basic declaration, especially from a huge and powerful firm like Facebook,” said Peter Micek, Access Now’s General Counsel. “The company’s many failures in safeguarding data, respecting free expression, and protecting vulnerable users show Facebook adrift, far downstream, and paddling against inertia. If Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg signed off on this policy, he must ensure its implementation, respecting calls from civil society while complying with rights-respecting regulation, to chart an entirely new direction at Facebook.”  

The policy covers all of Facebook Inc.’s products and services, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and others. It commits to a number of measures, such as challenging any attempts to undermine end-to-end encryption, protecting human rights defenders, expanding its work on civil rights, providing remedy for human rights harms, and annually reporting and informing the Board and executives of the implementation of the human rights policy. But its ultimate success will depend greatly on the extent to which Facebook’s leadership prioritizes keeping human rights at the forefront of every area of the company’s work, and on the human rights team inside of Facebook — alongside external experts — being given additional resources, top-level support, and a more central role in everything from product development to safety and security to sales and beyond.

“Facebook’s recent actions in Australia — blocking the accounts of civil society organizations in response to a controversial law — is just one example of exactly why the tech giant needs a human rights policy,” said Isedua Oribhabor, Access Now’s U.S. Policy Analyst. “Having a robust policy in place means that when Facebook acts in ways that undermine their stated commitments, the platform’s users, investors, regulators, courts, and Facebook’s own employees and contractors, have a concrete document to point to and hold the company accountable.”

As Facebook continues to grapple with issues of content moderation and privacy, a human rights policy provides an indication of how the company may approach these topics. With an extensive list of regional and international human rights frameworks and guidelines which Facebook commits to respect, going beyond what other companies reference, Access Now looks forward to seeing how the company will fulfill these ambitious commitments in practice. Facebook can start by:

  • Ensuring that the Facebook human rights team is meaningfully involved in senior-level decisions that affect human rights, and supported to carry out cross-functional implementation; 
  • Heeding its own shareholders’ call to appoint a member to the Board of Directors with a high level of human and/or civil rights expertise; and
  • Providing regular updates on the implementation of this policy, subject to stakeholder review.

Access Now provided comments to Facebook on an earlier draft of this policy and will continue to monitor the company’s progress on its implementation.