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The internet, free speech and responsibility (4)

Internet platforms have numerous backroom deals with governments on terms that are glaringly at variance with their public face of libertarianism, it has come to light. In her 2021 book, “Silicon Values: The future of free speech under surveillance capitalism”, free speech activist Jillian York does an interesting chronology of platform acquiescence to online censorship requests by governments, from authoritarian regimes in China, Turkey, and Egypt, to liberal democracies like Germany and the United States.

If you are from the developing world or the global south, even as you worry about the less than altruistic intentions of your governments on social media regulation, you inevitably get offended somewhat, when you happen on facts that show the same online platforms do not hesitate to accede to online pull-down requests by governments in the rich world or global north.

For online censorship, governments could hitherto simply use custom or off-the-shelf equipment to “filter by keywords, block a user’s IP address or the address (URL) of a website or engage in a technique known as domain name system (DNS) tampering (York, 2021).”

Later on, online censorship requests by governments came via court orders or the flagging of problematic posts or pointing out platform community rules violations. These days, however, governments simply “request that a company remove or geolocationally block a piece of content from their platform (York, 2021).”

Ironically, the still relatively high online freedom across Africa has had more to do with the fact that more than half of Africans still do not have access to the internet, than any supposed tolerance by its governments. Now, however, African governments have begun to worry about the disproportionate influence on public opinion that social media increasingly wields; especially those, which when in opposition, successfully deployed internet tools to regain power.

Q: What determines whether an internet platform accedes to an online censorship request by one country’s government and rejects one by another?

Internet platforms did not need intrusive governments to censor online content hitherto. To ensure compliance with copyright laws, limit piracy, protect intellectual property, and so on, platforms have for a while now, been using geolocation technology for content censorship across geographies.

Well-travelled citizens of the global south are likely very familiar with the frustration of suddenly being unable to access content that only hours before you were probably enjoying in London, New York or Singapore. The same geolocation technology that enables platforms restrict content across borders find utility in blocking content that governments find offensive.

In York’s (2021) narration, “social media platforms began utilizing these [geolocation and content delivery networks] technologies, first to geographically segment copyrighted material from foreign markets and later to narrow compliance with government orders.” Today, “geo-blocking enables companies to tailor restrictions to only the country for which they were intended (York, 2021).”

Another controversial issue is the “newsworthiness exemption” by Facebook, and similar policies by its competitors, that allow content by newsmakers to remain online even when they are in clear violation of platform rules. The typical rationalisation is that it is not differential to pull down content, like the speech of politicians, that would be published by other media platforms regardless.

Some of the questions these revelations raise are viz. What determines whether an internet platform accedes to an online censorship request by one country’s government and rejects one by another? What is the criteria for determining which politician’s speech is newsworthy and which is not?

“In 2019, Nick Clegg – former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom and vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook – reiterated the policy, announcing that Facebook will treat all speech from politicians as newsworthy content that “should, as a general rule, be seen and heard (York, 2021).”

Without giving air to some of the world leaders and newsmakers whose social media posts have either been censored, accounts suspended or platform membership barred, this has clearly not been the case all the time.

This inconsistency in the application of the rules comes with costs. It distracts from the identified online infractions, as the deplatformed users, some of which are influential and powerful, rightfully or mischievously pivot to the palpable double standards in the application of the rules.

In some cases, many of the platforms’ users in the global south become hapless victims instead, needlessly suffering significant economic and social consequences. Rules and standards should apply to all in a fair and consistent manner.

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