Seriously, Microsoft?, Daily Brief from May 25, 2023

Listen to the top story from the Daily Brief for May 25, 2023.


This is Human Rights Watch's Daily Brief for the 25th of May, 2023. Today we're going to be talking about Microsoft and Saudi Arabia.

So here’s a bad idea: tech giant Microsoft is planning to invest in a new cloud data center in Saudi Arabia.

While you’re picking your jaw up off the floor, let me tell you it’s probably worse than you imagine.

What’s shocking here is not just Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record generally. Of course, the country is infamous for its incessant repression of dissent, and even brutal murder of its critics.

But Saudi Arabian authorities also have an awful record specifically related to tech.

They are known to infiltrate technology platforms to spy on people with ideas they dislike – such as, “humans have rights.” They deploy sophisticated cyber surveillance software, including spyware against dissidents and others they perceive as not toeing their authoritarian line.

And the Saudi legal system itself is hardly conducive to the data center idea. Its laws on cybercrime and data protection are vague at best and grant sweeping powers to government agencies to access personal information.

There is an enormous risk Saudi authorities could obtain access to data stored in Microsoft’s cloud data center, thus posing direct threats to human rights and privacy. Human rights defenders and activists in the country continue to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating for political and rights reforms. And torture in detention is pervasive.

No international company should ever put themselves at risk of becoming a tool in support of such abuses.

What’s more, Saudi Arabia requires all cloud service providers to remove or geo-block “unlawful” content upon the request of the Saudi authorities. What’s “unlawful” is pretty much whatever the regime says is “unlawful,” including a range of activities that are nothing more than peaceful expression.

Eighteen human right groups have issued a statement calling on Microsoft to rethink the move. At the very least, the company should suspend its plans until it can demonstrate how it will deal with these serious, possibly life-threatening, risks.