As the world stays home to slow the spread of COVID-19, communities are rapidly transitioning to digital meeting spaces. This highlights a trend EFF has tracked for years: discussions in virtual spaces shape and reflect societal freedoms, and censorship online replicates repression offline. As most of us spend increasing amounts of time in digital spaces, the impact of censorship on individuals around the world is acute.
Tracking Global Online Censorship is a new project to record and combat international speech restrictions, especially where censorship policies are exported from Europe and the United States to the rest of the world. Headed by EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian York, the project will seek accountability for powerful online censors—in particular, social media platforms such as Facebook and Google—and hold them to just, inclusive standards of expressive discourse, transparency, and due process in a way that protects marginalized voices, dissent, and disparate communities.
“Social media companies make mistakes at scale that catch a range of vital expression in their content moderation net. And as companies grapple with moderating new types of content during a pandemic, these error rates will have new, dangerous consequences,” said Jillian York. “Misapplication of content moderation systems results in the systemic silencing of marginalized communities. It is vital that we protect the free flow of information online and ensure that platforms provide users with transparency and a path to remedy.”
Support for Tracking Global Online Censorship is provided by the Swedish Postcode Foundation (Svenska Postkodstiftelsen). Established in 2003, the Swedish Postcode Foundation receives part of the Swedish Postcode Lottery’s surplus, which it then uses to provide financial support to non-governmental organizations creating positive changes through concrete efforts. The Foundation’s goal is to create a better world through projects that challenge, inspire, and promote change.
“Social media is a huge part of our daily life and a primary source of information. Social media companies enjoy an unprecedented power and control and the lack of transparency that these companies exercise does not run parallel to the vision that these same companies were established for. It is time to question, create awareness, and change this. We are therefore proud to support the Electronic Frontier Foundation in their work to do so,” says Marie Dahllöf, Secretary General of the Swedish Postcode Foundation.
We are at a pivotal moment for free expression. A dizzying array of actors have recognized the current challenges posed by intermediary corporations in an increasingly global world, but a large number of solutions seek to restrict—rather than promote—the free exchange of ideas. At the same time, as COVID-19 results in greater isolation, online expression has become more important than ever, and the impact of censorship greater. The Tracking Global Online Censorship project will draw attention to the myriad issues surrounding online speech, develop new and existing coalitions to strengthen the effort, and offer policy solutions that protect freedom of expression. In the long term, our hope is for corporations to stop chilling expression, to promote free access to time-sensitive news, foster engagement, and to usher in a new era of online expression in which marginalized communities will be more strongly represented within democratic society.