The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Rikke Frank Jørgensen: How platforms make sense of human rights

Rikke Frank Jørgensen, Danish Institute for Human Rights

Online platforms play an increasingly important role as owners and managers of the online infrastructure and sociability. As such, they have the power to influence users’ human rights in ways conventionally reserved for governments. At the same time, human rights law is state-centric in nature, and holds no direct obligations for companies. In order to address these human rights challenges, it is crucial to understand the norms and practices of these private actors vis-р-vis human rights standards.

The paper explores human rights storytelling within two of the dominant internet companies, Google and Facebook. Based on analysis of publicly available statements, as well as conversations with company staff, the article examines how human rights are framed, made sense of, and translated into platform norms, features and governance structures. The paper argues that there is a fundamental disconnect between the companies’own sense-making and discourse around human rights, such as privacy and freedom of expression, and the international human rights framework. The companies’ framing in many respects resemble that of the US online freedom agenda, celebrating the liberating power of the internet and perceiving human rights as primarily safeguards towards repressive governments. The companies see freedom of expression as part of their DNA and do not perceive any contradiction between this standard and business practices that may impact negatively on users’freedom of expression, such as terms of service enforcement. Likewise, with regard to privacy, there is no sense of conflict between the online business model and their users’right to privacy.

Theoretical framework

The paper is inspired by three set of discourses in particular. First, research on transformations in the public domain and the socio/economic shifts implied in these changes (Zuboff, 2015, Papacharissi, 2010, Elkin-Koren, 2012, Benkler, 2006, Fuchs, 2015). Second, literature on the politics and architecture of online platforms and their role in everyday life (Gillespie, 2010, Marvick, 2012, boyd, 2011, Van Dijck and Poll, 2013). Third, analysis on the specific human rights challenges pertaining to the online domain and in particular the role of private actors as human rights arbiters (Rosen, 2012, Balkin, 2014, Ammori, 2014, Kim and Telman, 2015).


The research is based on publicly available statements from the two companies, terms of service, policies, as well as semi-structured interviews with company staff, primarily in Europe and the US. As part of the data collection, I have visited Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, as well as its international office in Dublin. Likewise, I visited the Google headquarters in Mountain View (GooglePlex), and the European Google headquarters in Dublin.

The interviews focus on the internal discourse and sense making related to human rights; the translation of this normative basis into specific features or products, and the governance mechanisms set up to enforce the norms. The interviewed have been staff with responsibility for human rights (e.g. participation to the Global Network Initiative), public policy, privacy, community operations (Facebook), and removal requests (Google). However, meetings have also been conducted with technical staff (Google), as well as more research oriented staff working on education and user experience (Google). In total, 21 interviews were conducted (13 Google / 8 Facebook), including two interviews with staff that are no longer with the company. Additionally, 10 publicly available talks / interviews have been included and analysed in relation to the above themes. In response to the challenge of conducting elite interviews (Dexter, 1970, Mikecz, 2012), I explicitly addressed the critical framing of the companies by scholars and human rights activists, not least in relation to privacy and data protection.

The paper is structured as follows. Firstly, it examines specific characteristics of the online domain, in particular its commercial nature and its composition of a variety of public-private configurations; secondly, it explores the implications of these developments for online rights and freedoms e.g. the all-pervasive nature of data capture and the state-centric nature of human rights law. Thirdly, it uses this framework to discuss the empirical findings, i.e. how Google’s and Facebook’s framing of human rights manifest as platform norms and rules, and the wider human rights implications of this.


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Rikke Frank Jørgensen