American companies face a difficult tradeoff when dealing with government requests, but they should just say no to Saudi Arabia, which is using social media companies to do its dirty work in censoring Qatari media. Over the past few weeks, both Medium and Snap have caved to Saudi demands to geoblock journalistic content in the kingdom.
The history of Silicon Valley companies’ compliance with requests from foreign governments is a sad one, and one that has undoubtedly led to more censorship around the world. While groups like EFF have been successful at pushing companies toward more transparency and at pushing back against domestic censorship in the United States, it seems that companies are unwilling or unable to see why protecting freedom of expression on their platforms abroad is important.
After Yahoo’s compliance with a user data request from the Chinese government in the early 2000s resulted in the imprisonment of two Chinese citizens, the digital rights community began to pressure companies to use more scrutiny when dealing with orders from foreign governments. The early work of scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon led to widespread awareness amongst civil society groups and the eventual creation of the Global Network Initiative, which created standards guiding companies’ compliance with foreign requests. A push from advocacy groups resulted in Google issuing its first transparency report in 2010, with other companies following the Silicon Valley giant’s lead. Today—thanks to tireless advocacy and projects like EFF’s Who Has Your Back report—dozens of companies issue their own reports.
Transparency is vital. It helps users to understand who the censors are, and to make informed decisions about what platforms they use. But, as it turns out, transparency does not necessarily lead to less censorship.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific censors, attacking everything from advertisements and album covers to journalistic publications. The government—an absolute monarchy—has in recent years implemented far-reaching surveillance, arrested bloggers and dissidents for their online speech, and allegedly deployed an online “army” against Al Jazeera and its supporters. Even before recent events, the country was known as the Arab world’s leader in Internet censorship, aggressively blocking a wide array of content from its citizens. American companies—including Facebook and Google—have at times in the past voluntarily complied with content restriction demands from Saudi Arabia, though we know little about their context.
Now, in the midst of Saudi Arabia’s sustained attack on Al Jazeera (and its host country, Qatar), the government is ramping up its takedown requests. In particular, the government of Saudi Arabia is going after the press, and disappointingly, Silicon Valley companies seem all too eager to comply.
In late June, Medium complied with requests from the government to restrict access to content from two publications: Qatar-backed Al Araby Al Jadeed (“The New Arab”) and The New Khaliji News. In the interest of transparency, the company sent both requests to Lumen.
Medium has faced government censorship before; In 2016, the Malaysian government blocked the popular blogging platform, while Egypt included the site in a long list of banned publications earlier this year. By complying with the orders of the Saudi government, Medium is less likely to face a full ban in the country.
This week, Snap disappointed free expression advocates by joining the list of companies willing to team up with Saudi Arabia against Qatar and its media outlets. The social media giant pulled the Al Jazeera Discover Publisher Channel from Saudi Arabia late last week. A company spokesperson told Reuters: “We make an effort to comply with local laws in the countries where we operate.”
As we’ve argued in the past, companies should limit their compliance with foreign governments which are not democratic and where they do not have employees or other assets on the ground. By censoring at the behest of a government like Saudi Arabia’s, Medium and Snap have chosen to side with the Saudi regime in a dangerous political game—and by censoring the press, they have demonstrated a stunning lack of commitment to freedom of expression. While other companies like Facebook and Twitter may have set the precedent, it’s not one that other companies should be proud to follow.
We urge Medium and Snap to reconsider their decisions, and for other companies to strengthen their commitment to freedom of expression by refusing to bow to demands from authoritarian governments when they’re not legally bound to.