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China’s Great Firewall is notorious for blocking access to a free and open internet, but states are not alone in their willingness and ability to curb free expression online. Private companies play an increasingly important role in determining the boundaries of acceptable speech in the digital sphere.
This means setting restrictive terms of service (no nude pics on Facebook), removing or blocking content that upsets national laws or public sentiments (no extreme right-wing groups on Twitter in Germany), and monitoring and monetising user data (via cyborg tech like Google Glass). As new arbiters of free speech, these companies have not replaced government censor boards, but they often make their jobs a lot easier.
A decade ago, such practices were arguably less troubling, as they were less sophisticated and much less effective. Internet users were also more likely to scatter their data across many sites than to live in digital silos.
Today, we increasingly entrust a few consolidated platforms with our most personal data. If the internet represents critical infrastructure on a par with electricity and plumbing - an idea that is gaining traction as more of the world’s GDP can be linked to digital economies - then perhaps we should expect top sites and service providers to be held to account for their impact on our daily lives.
Terms of service
Direct privatisation of censorship occurs when companies use their terms of service to draw red lines around “acceptable” content.
Often labelled community standards, values or guidelines to soften their weight, these terms of service dictate how individuals and groups must behave on a given platform if they wish to remain in the “community”. Facebook’s community standards code, just one component of the company’s terms and policies, prohibit users from “sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure”, impose “limitations on the display of nudity”, and include “a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content”.
The amount of graphic porn I stumbled upon on Facebook and Twitter while conducting research on queer online communities for my master’s thesis implies that such standards are not always enforced. But the fact that users are occasionally “terminated” for violating these restrictive terms, and the mere existence of them, is enough to keep some from freely expressing themselves.
Beyond content constraints, inconsistently enforced real name policies can also chill free speech. Google+ initially required real-name authentication but now permits some users to display pseudonyms. Facebook briefly shut down the “We Are All Khaled Said” page, instrumental during the 2011 protests in Egypt, when it emerged that one of the page’s creators had used a pseudonym to set it up. Meanwhile, more than 83 million Facebook accounts are fakes.
Anonymity can hinder companies from fully monetising user data and let trolls run amok, but it can also save the lives of activists, dissidents, blasphemers, sexual minorities, and anyone brave enough to speak out against repression, but wise enough to do so pseudonymously. Vint Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and famed “father of the internet”, recently came out against policies that require offline names to be used online, a positive sign for the My Name is Me anonymity movement spearheaded by internet activists in late 2011.
While editorial boards at many newspapers have long set policies to limit what kinds of content crop up on small town newsstands, Facebook is making judgement calls for more than a billion people around the world. The company’s aim to “balance the needs and interests of a global population” is Herculean if not Quixotic.
When “community” means most people with an internet connection, the power Facebook and other companies have to dictate the terms of free speech should be matched by a level of accountability, responsibility and consistency that is often lacking.
The main problem is that companies are accountable first and foremost to shareholders, and profit can come at the expense of free expression. When democracies set constraints on free speech they can be held to account. The same is seldom true for private companies.
Privatised censorship also occurs when companies cave to external pressures demanding they block or take down a particular video, image or text.
During the Innocence of Muslims debacle last year, Google voluntarily blocked the controversial video from YouTube in Egypt and Libya based not on company policy or government takedown requests, but on the “very sensitive situations” i.e. violent protests unfolding in both countries. This decision to block the video without a court order goes against the company’s standard procedures and sets a troubling precedent. We can only hope this decision does not suggest to future protesters that violence is an effective way to silence controversial viewpoints. Pressure to block or remove content also comes from governments and corporate lobbying groups. Copyright is perhaps the most common reason why companies comply with such requests. The new six strike Copyright Alert System in the US is the latest example of this privatised censorship, with ISPs voluntarily slowing down the internet access speed of users who repeatedly pirate or share copyrighted information.
SOPA, PIPA and ACTA were the latest and most high-profile four letter foes of internet companies and users, attempting to enforce harsher intellectual property laws in the US and Europe. If successful, these bills would have required companies to ramp up their censorship efforts in responding to government takedown requests.
Fear of reprisal, and ultimately financial loss, drives many companies to over comply with government or corporate takedown requests or to implement terms of service that keep them on “the safe side of the law”, meaning they restrict more expression than legally required in a given country or context.
It is through these legal demands that democratic and authoritarian governments alike use companies to do their dirty work. Governments and institutions also restrict access to certain sites by contracting manufacturers of surveillance and filtering technology like Blue Coat and Gamma Group. These contracts represent another form of government censorship made possible by private corporations.
Data and privacy
The murkiest form of privatised censorship and one of the most disturbing is corporate compliance with government requests for user data. In 2011, the big American telcos complied with 1.3 million requests. It’s no wonder that AT&T, which complied with the most, recently won Access Now’s Telco Hall of Shame Network Interference award. AT&T’s “shameful” success was buoyed by its support of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a zombie bill that was reintroduced in the US House of Congress last month and that has digital rights defenders up in arms. CISPA would provide legal immunity for telcos to hand over even more user data to government agencies. The fear, closing in on assumption, that words we type and images we send might end up in government hands certainly leads many users to self-censor.
Many users are also concerned about the invasive ways companies gather and use personal data for their own ends. These fears have a real chilling effect on free expression online and offline in places that were once assumed, perhaps naively, to be private.
At the Freedom to Connect conference outside Washington DC this month, Dan Gilmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, argued that today’s internet users live in a new state of feudalism. Preferring convenience over freedom of technology, we rely on data lords to safeguard our cybersecurity and shrug our shoulders with indifference, or perhaps with a sense of helplessness and inevitability, each time these behemoths are hacked.
Like it or not, most of us are increasingly dependent on networked technologies owned by private companies. When a loose internal cord recently caused my laptop to crash for several hours during a busy week, my productivity and social life ground to a halt. The same would happen if my emails, contacts, documents and calendars, all stored on a few companies’ servers, were ever compromised. Like millions of others, I have made a conscious decision to sacrifice some control of my privacy to live in a convenient digital ecosystem. This should not mean I need also sacrifice my fundamental right to free expression.
Protecting the path forward
We can’t fault companies for creating great products or attracting a billion users, but with great power should come great responsibility. We should demand transparency when companies’ handling of our data is likely to infringe on our freedom of expression. Google and Twitter do a good job of this with their transparency reports and other initiatives, but many companies like Skype, Myspace, Foursquare and Verizon fall short of the mark.
The US and British web companies, ISPs, telcos and software developers I mention in this article are certainly not the worst offenders when it comes to privatising censorship. Indeed, compared to some state-run services they can be free speech saviours, giving voice to marginalised communities and providing platforms to organise and demand political change.
But because we depend on these companies, we must insist that they protect our rights. Private companies now provide the platforms and channels through which we communicate with colleagues and loved ones. Our offline public squares have moved online to social networking sites. Private companies should therefore respect their role as channels of public discourse and do everything in their power to keep these channels open.
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