Transparency is No Substitute for Free Speech

Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim.Licensed CC-BY.

Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim.
Licensed CC-BY.

By Eva Galperin and Jillian York

Twitter has released a new transparency report. The company—which scored five stars in our latest “Who Has Your Back?” report—blogged about the release, wrote that “[p]roviding this insight is simply the right thing to do, especially in an age of increasing concerns about government surveillance.” More than thirty Internet companies now publish transparency reports.

Transparency is vitally important, but can be no substitute for upholding free speech. When Twitter declared itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” back in 2012, it set itself up as a role model for social media companies.

But a little less than a year ago, Twitter stepped down from that role, withholding1 content at the request of the Pakistani and Russian (and later, Turkish) governments. While the Pakistani decision was later reversed, it set a chilling precedent: this was the first time the microblogging platform had withheld content in a country where it did not have a physical presence.

During this latest period (July-December 2014), Twitter withheld content in Turkey and Russia once again, as well as in several countries where the company does have offices: Brazil, France, Germany, India, Japan, and the Netherlands.

And how does Russia feel about all of this? They’re just angry that Twitter hasn’t taken down even more content. Alexandr Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications watchdog, said he was “baffled” by Twitter’s refusal to block “popular opponents of the Russian government.” Zharov and Roskomnadzor have spent the last year making both explicit and oblique threats to block Twitter if the service is not more cooperative in silencing critics of the Putin regime. Let there be no doubt that if you give Internet censors an inch, they will take a mile.

Twitter’s flirtation with Russian demands for Internet censorship comes amid a rapidly-closing media environment in Russia. Since 2012, when the Russian Duma passed the first law creating an Internet censorship blacklist to block illegal content (then defined as child pornography, drug paraphernalia, or instructions about self-harm), numerous laws have expanded the blacklist to include new kinds of content. In 2013, the Duma passed the Russian SOPA which allowed courts to block websites accused of sharing “stolen movies.” Later in the year, the Attorney General was granted to power to add sites that call for “riots, extremist activities, the incitement of ethnic and (or) sectarian hatred, terrorist activity, or participation in public events held in breach of appropriate procedures” to list the blacklist.

In 2014, the Duma passed the “Bloggers Law,” creating a new registry especially for citizen-media outlets with more than 3,000 daily readers. Bloggers added to this registry face a series of new regulations (against obscene language and libel), increasing their vulnerability to criminal prosecution. 2014 also saw a legal crackdown on Twitter users. In June, the Duma passed a law which allows the government to hand down five-year prison sentences to people who retweet extremist materials online, and the next month, they passed “data localization” law, which will require all companies storing user data belonging to Russians to store that data on servers located inside of Russia. The data localization law, which will go into effect in September 2015 could easily be used as a pretext for blocking social media services such as Facebook and Twitter if they are not compliant. This is not the behavior of a government that looks like it’s going to back down just because Twitter blocks a couple of tweets.

Turkey—whose president just sent out his first tweet—is likely pleased with the results. The censorious country has been at the forefront of pushing American social media companies to conduct censorship on its behalf, paving the way for other countries. Turkey is pushing for Twitter to pay taxes in its jurisdiction, despite not having an office there.

As we’ve repeatedly time and time again, social media companies should seriously consider the long-term implications of choosing to censor in jurisdictions where they are not required to do so. Not only does censoring at the behest of governments like Turkey and Russia signal to more governments that Twitter’s willing to bend to their desires, but it also transfers blame from governments (which are ultimately responsible for such censorship) to corporations, taking censorship outside of legal processes and making it more difficult for users to resist.

We understand that companies like Twitter believe that conducting censorship for Turkey or Russia prevents them from getting blocked, but at what cost?