Investors claim Google data center in Saudi Arabia puts lives at risk

May 30, 2023

Leading proxy advisor, Institutional Shareholder Services, has recommended a vote for Proposal 10 challenging Alphabet’s plans to partner with the Saudi government at the June 2nd AGM

San Francisco – Rights groups are raising the alarm ahead of Alpahbet’s AGM next week on June 2 urging Google to scrap its deal to build a cloud region in Saudi Arabia. The Google installation is a joint project with Saudi-Aramco, the state-owned energy company, which will build and operate the data center. 

Members of the Ekō community (formerly known as SumOfUs) have filed a shareholder resolution which calls for an assessment of the implications of placing data centers in countries with rights abusing governments, and what mitigation efforts the company will take to address the concerns. The resolution which was filed last year and received 57% of the independent vote, has gained significant momentum due to strong investor backing, enabling the resolution to be filed once again.

Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), a leader in corporate governance and responsible investing, whose recommendations are respected by leading investors, has recommended a vote in favor of the resolution – an early sign that this issue could gain widespread support and traction with Alphabet investors for a second year in a row. 

Over the past two years, 39 leading international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Access Now, Ekō, and the Middle East based SMEX have questioned the placement of a cloud center in Saudi Arabia given the country’s dismal human rights record. The groups raised concerns about how the company intends to keep the data center secure from government infiltration, and how the company will respond if/when the Saudi government demands it hand over user data, in-line with strict Saudi Arabian law. Google has yet to provide a clear answer. 

Rewan Al-Haddad, Campaign Director with Ekō said: “If Google intends to cooperate with Saudi Arabia’s data requests as the company has done with other governments, then we should all be very alarmed. It puts thousands of lives at risk, and will fundamentally change how users in the region engage with Google products and other apps that use Google cloud services. We want Google to keep our data safe, not hand it over on a silver plate to oligarchs that butcher dissidents.” 

The concern with security comes after the Kingdom was exposed as having infiltrated Twitter with spies who leaked sensitive information about Saudi activists to the Saudi government. It is believed that the Saudi activist and aid worker AbdulRahman Al-Sadhan, who allegedly used an anonymous Twitter account to parody the Saudi Arabian government, was one of the users whose data was leaked. Al-Sadhan was disappeared in 2018, and in 2021 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Saudi government. 

This year the Saudi dissident Ali Al-Ahmed is delivering the resolution at the AGM via audio. (A copy of the 2 minute clip can be shared per request.)  Al-Ahmed is another user who was hacked by the Saudi Twitter spies. He believes the hack has led to numerous jailings and even murders of activists in the Kingdom, including Abdullah Al-Hamid, the founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Al-Hamid died in Saudi state custody in April 2020. 

Al-Ahmed has launched a second lawsuit against Twitter regarding the hack, claiming Twitter has “enabled, collaborated, colluded, conspired with, aided and abetted, and/or otherwise turned a blind eye to KSA's efforts to suppress, torture, falsely imprison, terrorize, and murder dissenters both within Saudi Arabia and around the world." 

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which was roundly condemned by the international community, serves as another example of human rights abuses by the Saudi government. According to US intelligence, the murder was approved by Saudi Crown Prince MBS.

Regarding the Google data center, Ali Al-Ahmed said: "We’ve seen Saudi Arabia hack another Big Tech company, and that led to imprisonments, torture, and death. What’s to stop them from doing it again? It is very distressing to imagine what could happen. The company must scrap this deal with Saudi Arabia immediately.” 

Digital Rights group Access Now has also called for the company to halt plans for the Saudi data center. Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Manager said: “Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted with a Google Cloud center. A regime with a vile record of torture, surveillance, and forced disappearances must not be rewarded by playing host to a stock pile of data ripe for exploitation. No serious human rights due diligence can dismiss such an egregious record, except one that places profit over people.”

Ekō, which has over 22 million subscribers worldwide, launched a petition urging Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, as well as Google executives and investors to cancel the Saudi plans and stop building data centers in countries with human rights abuses. The petition has been signed by more than 103,000 people. 

Ekō is a global movement of consumers, investors, and workers all around the world, united together to hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable and just path for our global economy.

For more information contact Andrea Desky: