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Apple threatened to remove Facebook, Instagram apps from App Store over slavery posts

India Today logo India Today 26-10-2021 India Today Tech

Apple had threatened to remove Facebook and Instagram apps from the App Store over slavery posts in the middle east back in 2019. The Cupertino tech giant had relented its decision after Facebook publicly announced that it "prohibits human exploitation in no uncertain terms." The story has resurfaced after two years after former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen provided documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Previously The Wall Street Journal and BBC had reported on the issue.

Facebook had then acknowledged that it was aware of the exploitative conditions of foreign workers and the use of Instagram to buy and trade maids online even before a 2019 report by the BBC's Arabic service on the practice in the Mideast. That BBC report sparked the threat by Apple to remove the apps, citing examples of pictures of maids and their biographic details showing up online, according to the documents, news agency AP reported.

The problem, however, is still prevalent on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook described engineers accessing problematic messages in maid-recruiting agencies' inboxes, including one in which a Filipina specifically is mentioned as being "sold" by her Kuwaiti employers.

The report noted that authorities in Kuwait, where the Philippines temporarily banned domestic workers from going after an abused Filipina was found dead in a refrigerator in 2018 over a year after disappearing, did not respond to requests for comment. In the Philippines, the billions of dollars annually sent home from overseas workers represent nearly 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Those wanting to go abroad trust Facebook more than the private recruiting agencies monitored by the government in part over past scandals, Bernard Olalia told AP, who heads the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which has the team monitoring Facebook postings.

Job seekers mistakenly believe the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration endorses some of the Facebook and Instagram accounts, in part as they misused the office's logos, he said. Facebook had acknowledged the problematic posts and used an acronym to describe it — HEx, or "human exploitation." The report notes that users only reported 2 per cent of the problematic content, likely due to the desire to travel abroad for work. Facebook had then worked to remove the problematic posts, the company engineers found nearly three-fourths of the posts, including posts that showed maids in videos and screenshots of their conversations, occurred on Instagram. Links to maid-selling sites predominantly affected Facebook.

While Facebook disabled over 1,000 accounts on its websites, its analysis papers acknowledged that as early as 2018 the company knew it had a problem with what is referred to as "domestic servitude." It defined the problem as a "form of trafficking of people for the purpose of working inside private homes through the use of force, fraud, coercion or deception." Facebook had noted that it only scratched the surface of the problem and that domestic servitude content remained on the platform.

"In our investigation, domestic workers frequently complained to their recruitment agencies of being locked in their homes, starved, forced to extend their contracts indefinitely, unpaid, and repeatedly sold to other employers without their consent," one Facebook document read. "In response, agencies commonly told them to be more agreeable."

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