For years, pundits and scholars have warned of the implications of social media companies capitulating to foreign governments, handing over user data or censoring content. Facebook’s latest government requests report, released late last week, demonstrates why: as governments grow aware of the fact that stifling speech is as easy as submitting an order to a corporation, the number of those orders will drastically increase.
The latest report shows that Turkey and Pakistan in particular are keen to exploit Facebook’s willingness to respond to legal orders from countries where they are not legally required to do so. While the largest number of censorship requests came from India (where Facebook has a large presence), Turkey and Pakistan weren’t far behind with 1893 and 1773 requests for content removal respectively.
Facebook states that it only removes content that is "illegal under local law," but does not provide additional information on censored content. In Turkey—where criticism of the state or the country’s modern founder, Atatürk, is prohibited—this means that Facebook is, in effect, complicit in political censorship. Same goes for Pakistan; earlier this year, Twitter reversed a decision to censor content at the behest of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority following criticism from Pakistani civil society. At the time, the company issued a statement that read, in part:
We have reexamined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, have determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted. The content is now available again in Pakistan.
While we often find the results regrettable, we recognize that when a company opens an office in a given country, it must comply with local laws and remove content accordingly. Nevertheless, we believe that—as Twitter has done—companies should be transparent about the legal requests that they receive and their subsequent actions.
On the other hand, when a company does not have a presence in a given country and is thus not subject to its censorious laws, we believe that it can and should refuse government censorship requests. This is as true for Pakistan and Turkey as it is for countries like Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Kuwait, which all show up in the most recent report.
At minimum, we expect companies to be transparent about the requests that they receive. While Facebook has improved in this area and now issues a regular report showing government requests, we urge the company to take it a step further and display exactly what kind of censorship requests it is receiving from governments. In doing so, the company will allow civil society in these countries to make more informed decisions about how they tackle censorship.