Google: Google's data plans in Saudi Arabia: Lives at risk

Jun 28, 2022 | Posted by MadalineDunn

Back in December 2020, Google announced that it had signed an agreement with state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco to set up a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia and offer Enterprise Cloud services. From the outset, this was a controversial move. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its human rights violations, alleged digital espionage, and use of cyber-surveillance software to crack down on dissidents. It's also worth noting the country's use of the infamous spyware software Pegasus and the decades-long prison sentences people have been condemned to as a result of jokes made at the expense of the government online. So, when Google said that it would help Saudi customers to "confidently grow and scale their offerings in this market," human rights organizations voiced their concerns. 

In Google's statement on human rights, it outlines it is committed to "respecting the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its implementing treaties, as well as upholding the standards established in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and in the Global Network Initiative Principles (GNI Principles)." When confronted with questions from the CIPPIC and Human Rights Watch on the due diligence process it has in place to understand the impact on human rights, data protection, and the access the Saudi government and employees will have to the information stored in the Saudi Arabia Cloud region, Google simply "reiterated" that it's committed to human rights. According to Google, it also conducted an independent human rights assessment. However, Google has reportedly refused to share any details regarding this, and failed to reply to questions from digital rights groups and organizations. Moreover, it is important to note that ​​UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is not legally binding but instead, an advisory framework. Speaking to DW, Laura Okkonen of Access Now, one of the organizations pushing forward the campaign to stop the project, said that the introduction of a cloud center in Saudi Arabia will fundamentally "risk lives." 

As reported by DW, in an effort to stop the development of the cloud, a group of activists backed by the online rights organization filed a resolution enabling Google investors to vote on the commission of report to assess "the sitting" of the giant's cloud center in countries that have "significant human rights concerns" at Alphabet's (Google's parent company) annual general meeting. The vote saw over 57% of shareholders back the proposal, but due to Google's executive management outranking them in voting power (co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and former CEO Eric Schmidt), the resolution was rejected.

A fundamental concern is how Google would deal with requests for user information from governments, and while Google has a number of pages publicly available outlining its course of action, it also complies with local laws, which human rights experts have outlined are "ripe for exploitation," due to the country's legal system being overseen by the authoritarian Saudi monarchy. Moreover, the country's repressive cybercrime law also means that the tech titan could be asked to "block or remove" content that violates the law. 

Considering the vast human rights violations, dodgy dealings, and lack of a sufficient data protection framework, some have accused Google of putting profit before people. Speaking in the Middle East Eye (MEE), Marwa Fatafta, Middle East and North Africa policy manager for digital rights group Access Now, said: "So obviously, there's always the question: do you advance your commercial interests over human rights? Human rights should be upheld first and then profits should come second. And that's the commitment the companies have made publicly."