What can social media platforms do for human rights?

Policy decisions by companies like Facebook and Twitter affect freedom of expression globally. Civil society has constructive solutions to this problem – tech firms must continue to listen and work with us.

Brett Solomon
26 October 2015

Flickr/Michael Coghlan. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Michael Coghlan. Some rights reserved.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become essential to free expression in the digital age. From the Arab Spring, to Turkey, to major electoral reform rallies in Malaysia, we’ve seen how movements around the world have used internet-based platforms to communicate, organize, and share critical information that impacts their lives.

It’s easy to forget that Facebook, for example, was created as a simple tool to let college classmates get to know each other. Now that platforms like Facebook have billions of users, the decisions that social media companies make impact free expression on a global scale. Indeed, many people who are new to the internet tend to confuse social media apps with the internet itself, new research by the Mozilla Foundation confirms—a fact that has important implications when it comes to free expression.

Social media platforms are increasingly where people connect with other people online. As such, police and security agencies, especially in repressive countries, often rely on social media to force people—members of minority groups, journalists, activists, and others—to reveal their social networks. With one password, sometimes revealed under torture, government authorities can clamp down on entire communities. Many human rights organizations have worked with platforms like Facebook to develop mechanisms to ensure the safety and security of people who are arrested and detained. At Access, our Digital Security Helpline works with platforms to help secure the social media accounts of users when it’s necessary to protect human rights and safeguard marginalized communities. Social media platforms have responded over the years by developing numerous positive security enhancements.

However, these platforms don’t get it right all of the time. For example, Twitter is without a doubt one of the most important platforms for news and information in the 21st century. Yet this August, Twitter revoked access to its API for the Netherlands-based Open State Foundation, which in 2010 created Politwoops, a valuable tool that lets the public see Tweets deleted by politicians. Before Twitter revoked access, it had been used in 32 countries, as a way to stop politicians from spinning their public statements after the fact. For that reason, we’ve joined a coalition of transparency and free expression organizations from around the world in a letter calling on Twitter to turn Politwoops back on. Without Politwoops, a politician who wants to rewrite the past can more easily do just that. This harms free expression, which includes the right to access information. On October 21, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pledged his company’s support for free expression, accountability, and transparency while speaking at a conference for developers. His statement, which specifically mentioned Politwoops, is a welcome development and Access will be working with Twitter over the coming months to determine how to promote political transparency via the platform. 

Another example is Facebook, which has run into trouble with its authentic name (or real name) policy, which requires you to use your real name when you set up an account on Facebook.

For years, people have been harassed on Facebook by adversaries who flag them as having “fake” identities, even when they’re using their real names. Others using pseudonyms have had their accounts suspended, and have been required to submit documentation to prove that their username matches a legal ID document—even though there is currently no secure way to encrypt the documents submitted, and we don’t know exactly what Facebook does with the data collected. Perhaps most disturbing, some people have had the name on their public Facebook profile changed to match the name in their identity documents—without prior notice or consent.

These are the results of the real name policy, which negatively impacts human rights defenders, journalists, members of marginalized communities, activists, organizations, and others. 

Through our work fighting for digital rights across the globe, we have heard, for example, that several Vietnamese writers and activists were flagged en masse and disallowed from using pen names on Facebook. One activist, a mother with two sons in prison, had been using her Facebook account primarily to campaign for their release. Every one of these activists and writers were asked to verify their identities. They also reported that in several cases, when they provided documents, Facebook unilaterally altered their accounts to list their legal names—without notifying them first. Years of important and anonymous activism became instantly linked with people’s identities. 

Anonymity is essential to the exercise of free expression online. This has been confirmed by David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, who extolled the value of anonymity in a landmark report. As Kaye observed, “Prohibition of anonymity online interferes with the right to freedom of expression.” This encompasses the full exercise of the right to freedom of expression: the right to seek, receive, and impart information. Many at-risk users rely on Facebook to fulfill all three of these important precepts. 

But when people are forced to reveal their real identity—or an adversary exposes it—their ability to exercise that right is threatened, and in some cases, their lives are placed in danger. This risk will become even more significant as Facebook positions itself to deliver the world’s news. Fortunately, European law already prohibits the use of real name policies due to data protection regulations. But the rest of the world is not so fortunate.

For these reasons, Access joined a coalition of rights organizations from around the world, including EFF and Human Rights Watch, in a letter to demand that Facebook fix the real name policy. We came up with simple, workable solutions, including that Facebook allow pseudonyms when using your everyday name would put you in danger; that the company require that people who file abuse reports support their claims with evidence; and that it provide a robust appeals process for people who are locked out of their accounts.

We know that it is possible for tech companies to take the concerns of civil society seriously and not only respond to reasonable requests to improve their platforms, but also to take a proactive approach. In 2009, Russian police cracked down on civil society groups for allegedly using pirated Microsoft software, and Microsoft employees helped with the investigations. After a backlash from human rights groups, Microsoft altered its licenses to clearly provide its software free of charge. Now, organizations all over the world can apply to receive free copies of Windows, Microsoft Office, and other programs. This is good for digital security as well. Old and/or pirated software often contains vulnerabilities which can be exploited by governments and malicious attackers. Legitimate software can be easily patched to improve security.

As global internet platforms seek to expand further into our lives, we’ve seen worrying attacks on the Silicon Valley commitment to support freedom of expression. Policy decisions by technology companies affect expression on a mass scale—100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute—and this can impact human rights and even place whole communities at risk of persecution. Civil society has constructive solutions, and tech companies are increasingly listening. All that’s required is for social media platforms to continue to listen, and to act.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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