How should ICT companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter conduct themselves when operating in states that crack down on media freedom? Should they comply with sometimes repressive and arbitrary laws to maintain market share, or should they stand up for a free internet?
According to the 2014 Freedom on the Net Report published by Freedom House, there has been a global decline in internet freedom over the last few years – a trend worsened by an increase in tougher laws against free speech online.
Cyberspace is often the realm where political opposition groups reside and it is also where governments have least control. In recent years, government requests for content removal have been on the rise. More and more governments are demanding from these companies the identities and activities of political opposition figures during critical moments like elections, where incumbents are wary of online dissent. As a result, there has been a growing number of cases of persecution of online political dissidents in places like Bangladesh, Thailand, and Turkey.
We do not know the extent to which ICT companies comply with government requests for information – particularly in developing states where freedom of press remains elusive.
Google has taken the lead in becoming more accountable to its users about the nature and frequency of government requests for content removal. The Google Transparency Report, which began in 2009, provides an annual review that tracks which governments are requesting what content be removed. A growing number of other ICT players such as Wordpress, reddit, Facebook and Twitter are beginning to release more information about their own compliance with these government requests. Such self-reporting, while commendable, is not verifiable. Meanwhile, Ranking Digital Rights released a pilot study this year that argued none of the companies under study were particularly exemplary in their respect for user rights and privacy.
We, the net users, must demand more transparency from ICT corporations. We cannot safeguard our rights to freedom of expression online if we do not know how much they have already been forsaken.