Third-party platforms like Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, and online email clients like Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail offer a wide variety of services to Internet speakers. They generally enable users to send messages, post content, participate in group discussions, and present their own websites and blogs online.
Popular third-party services like Facebook and Gmail have millions of users and are many speakers’ principal means of online communication. However, many such platforms, when pressed with takedown requests or legal threats, often opt for the cheap solution of taking down speech or banning users instead of risking expensive legal battles. Moreover, third-party services’ popularity also means that more and more people store huge amounts of private data and communications online, making these sites ripe for governments and civil lawyers seeking information about citizens, whether for law enforcement purposes or more nefarious reasons.
Governments – as well as private actors – seeking information about unpopular speakers often target third-party platforms in order to create surveillance profiles of dissidents and activists. In particular, speech-repressive regimes mine third-party sites like Facebook or Twitter for information about protest organizers and movement leaders. These sites are popular among activists for their wide user base and ease of use – but they are equally attractive to governments seeking to silence speakers, keep tabs on opposition figures, or even figure out where dissidents live (and who their friends are). Some governments may ban the use of these services altogether, as China banned Google and Gmail, in order to prevent any speech via these services whatsoever.
Even when a country has laws that shield third-party services from liability based on some of their users’ activity, such as the United States’ Communications Decency Act § 230, and the notice and takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, some third-party services would rather get rid of a user (or their allegedly offending content) than be drawn into a legal dispute, even where there is no liability risk to the third-party provider.
Examples of Targeting Third-Party Platforms
When the Chinese government requested information – including private emails – about several dissidents whom it sought to silence, Yahoo complied with its demands, supplying data that led to the prosecution and imprisonment of dissidents.
After registering the generic terms “urban homesteading” and “urban homestead” as trademarks, a group called the Dervaes Institute managed to convince Facebook to take down several pages that used those terms, including one supporting a handbook for urban homesteaders.