Millions of people around the globe are using blogging services and social media platforms created by US companies to communicate with each other. Unfortunately, these US companies have been helping censorial governments shut their citizens up by complying with a large variety of content removal requests.
While it is generally a best practice to follow local laws when offering services in foreign countries, it’s always disappointing when US companies respect laws that have been created solely for the purpose of stifling dissent, silencing critics, and putting marginalized people at the risk of even greater harm.
Paul Bischoff of Comparitech has compiled information from a number of companies’ transparency reports to produce an easily-readable snapshot of worldwide censorship as enabled by US tech companies. And the countries you’d expect to be demanding the censorship of the most content are the ones you’ll see taking top spots at various platforms. Russia, Turkey, and India all top the charts, both in the number of demands made and the actual amount of memory-holed content.
Russia must be home to one of the last large Blogger userbases, considering how often the country targets this platform. Russia alone accounted for 53% of the 115,000 removal requests received by Google, which also covers search engine listings and YouTube. Russia’s takedown demands have been steadily escalating over the past half-decade, jumping from 2,761 in 2015 to 19,192 in the first half of 2018 alone. Most of Russia’s requests are supposedly “national security” related, but that still leaves plenty to spread around to cover other things the government disapproves of, like nudity, drug abuse, and defamation.
Turkey comes in at a very distant second. It too likes to claim stuff is either defamation or a threat to national security, but it prefers to perform its vicarious censorship on a different social media platform: Twitter.
Turkey jumps into the top spot here, accounting for 55.23 percent of the overall number of requests (54,652). Russia is a distant second with 21.17 percent of the overall number.
But Russia is gaining ground…
[T]he largest number of content removal requests came last year with 23,464 (an 84% increase on the previous year). […]Russia and Turkey… made up 21.25 and 59.67 percent of the requests in 2018, respectively.
Yes, Twitter is Turkey’s playground. The easily-offended head of state (and all of his easily-offended officials) love to use content removal requests to silence critics and bury unflattering coverage. Unfortunately, Twitter has been all too helpful when it comes to Turkey oppressing its citizens via third parties. Sure, much of the blocking only affects Turkey, but that’s where dissenting views are needed the most.
Bischoff’s report is worth reading in full. It breaks down the raw data of transparency reports into easily-digestible chunks that show which platforms which countries censor most, as well as the type of complaints these countries are sending most often.
You’ll also see why one of the biggest censors in the world barely shows up in these reports. China doesn’t need third parties’ help to control what its citizens see online. It begins this censorship at home by blocking content across multiple platforms (and, often, the platforms themselves), some of which are homegrown services far more popular with Chinese users than their American equivalents. A lack of data doesn’t mean China is taking a hands-off approach to content moderation. It simply means the Chinese government rarely has to put its hands on anything outside the country to achieve its aims.
One of the more minor players in the global takedown playground is Wikimedia. Outside of the occasional DMCA takedown request, Wikimedia rarely gets hassled by anyone, much less world governments. But the requests it does get are far weirder than the run-of-the-mill censor-by-proxy requests delivered to social media platforms. Wikimedia is one of the few American entities that has told the Turkish government to beat it when Turkey asked for negative (but apparently factual) content to be removed. It also had to explain to members of an unnamed political party how Wikipedia — and the First Amendment — actually work.
A lawyer reached out to us on behalf of a lesser-known North American political party that was unhappy with edits to English Wikipedia articles about the party and one of its leaders. Her clients apparently wanted previous, more promotional versions of the articles restored in place of the later versions. To better engage in discussions with the community, we encouraged them to familiarize themselves with Wikipedia’s recommendations on style and tone and the policy restricting use of promotional language. We also advised that one of the best ways to resolve their concerns is to engage with the community directly.
And it has only removed one piece of content ever that wasn’t the result of a valid DMCA takedown request:
According to Wikimedia, a blogger visiting Burma/Myanmar posted a redacted photo of his visa on his website. Somehow, a version of his visa picture without his personal information removed ended up on an English Wikipedia article concerning the country’s visa policy.
“He wrote to us, asking to remove the photo,” wrote Wikimedia. “Given the nature of the information and the circumstances of how it was exposed, we took the image down.”
Tech advances have accelerated the pace of global censorship. When you’re dealing with the world’s greatest communication tool — the internet — you kind of have to take the good with the bad. Geoblocking content to stay in the good graces of foreign governments may seem like the “lesser of several evils” approach, but even if it’s the approach that will result in the least amount of collateral damage, it’s still something that encourages authoritarians to continue being authoritarian.
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