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Microsoft urged not to invest in Saudi Arabia over fear of human rights abuse

April 14, 2023 at 3:39 pm

Microsoft logo on 19 July, 2018 [Aytaç Ünal/Anadolu Agency]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Microsoft to suspend a possible investment by the tech giant in Saudi Arabia to build a new data centre inside the kingdom until Riyadh can clearly demonstrate how it will mitigate the risk of facilitating serious human rights violations.

In February, Microsoft announced its intention to invest $9 billion in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have pressed international companies to invest in the kingdom and move their regional headquarters to Riyadh in order to benefit from government contracts.

Warning of the possible risk of human right violations, HRW said that Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime and data protection laws severely undermine the right to privacy, enable unchecked state surveillance and allow Saudi state agencies to access data using overly broad and ill-defined “security reasons”, raising serious concerns about Microsoft’s ability to uphold its human rights responsibilities while operating in the country.

“Saudi authorities have grievously violated their own citizens’ right to privacy by hacking phones, infiltrating major tech companies, and passing laws granting sweeping surveillance powers to government entities,” said Arvind Ganesan, economic justice and human rights director at HRW. “Microsoft should not shut its eyes to Saudi Arabia’s abuses and should halt its investment until the company can meaningfully explain how it will mitigate human rights risks.”

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HRW highlighted the high probability that establishing a cloud data centre in Saudi Arabia poses unique and direct risks to human rights because the government may get access to that user data. “The Saudi government has already shown it will violate privacy, freedom of expression, association, nondiscrimination, and due process rights,” said HRW.

The rights group revealed that it wrote to Microsoft in February highlighting these concerns. Microsoft responded to questions from HRW and noted Microsoft’s commitment to the Trusted Cloud Principles and its approach for operating data centres in countries or regions with human rights challenges, but requested its responses remain off-the-record.

A long list of examples of Saudi spying on their own citizens was cited by HRW to highlight the risk investment in the kingdom poses to users of Microsoft before pointing out the company’s own commitment to human rights. Microsoft’s global human rights statement says that the company “commits to respecting the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). We work every day to implement the UNGPs throughout Microsoft, both at headquarters and offices in approximately 200 countries and territories, and throughout our global supply chains.”