Censuring the Censors

Why U.S. tech firms that help dictators restrict the Internet need to be held to account.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"Scourge," "the worst menace to society," "the best example of lies can be found there." That was Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan’s characterization of Twitter as protesters, besieged by his armed forces and inflamed by his imposition of hardline Islamic law, took to the network in droves to criticize his government last month. They were not idle observations. On June 26, Binali Yildirim, Erdogan’s transport and communications minister, demanded that Twitter open an office in Turkey in order to comply with orders to censor content and reveal user data. "Otherwise," Yildirim said, "this is a situation that cannot be sustained." A wholesale crackdown has yet to follow, but activists wait with bated breath. With the likelihood of Twitter opening a regional office to collaborate with government censors decidedly slim, the request was hollow — but the threat of retribution was not. Turkey blocked access to YouTube for two years in 2008.

Cracking down on Internet content has long been de rigueur in Muslim countries, but a recent spate of censorship reveals a problem spiraling out of control — no doubt triggered by the increase in protests against unpopular regimes. In June, Saudi Arabia suspended access to the popular messaging application Viber and threatened similar action against WhatsApp and Skype. Pakistan, ushering in its first-ever democratic transition of power, dashed hopes for reform when its new information technology minister began her first day on the job with a public threat to block Google for failing to expunge "blasphemous" content.

By breeding mistrust of government institutions and deepening fault lines between leaders and a frustrated, networked younger generation, this trend stands to destabilize a swath of countries at the heart of today’s global security challenges. Reversing this trend will require a concerted effort from governments, religious leaders, and especially technology companies around the world — both those threatened by state censors and those that have played a surprising role in making this new era of censorship possible.

Internet censorship is not a Muslim phenomenon. Many of its most powerful proponents, like China, lack Muslim majorities. But the reality is that such censorship has become endemic in the Muslim world. Almost 80 percent of the 31 Muslim-majority countries tracked by the Internet freedom organization OpenNet Initiative use some form of systematic Internet filtering. Of the seven exceptions, two (Afghanistan and Iraq) simply lacked sufficient infrastructure to filter web content, while four (Algeria, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Malaysia) censored in other ways, such as criminalizing content or harassing and arresting bloggers. Only one, Lebanon, was found to have no evidence of filtering and no censorship by other means.

Many of these countries struggle with tensions between Islamic identity and modern connectivity. These tensions are rooted in valid, deeply held convictions. But they have been exploited by repressive regimes looking for a convenient excuse to limit political expression and silence opposition. Pakistan, for example, regularly offers religious rationales for its censorship efforts. Its non-secular government has made clear that bans on scores of websites, including YouTube, are motivated by objections to material officially deemed to be "blasphemous." However, a probe by Canadian researchers found that Pakistan exhaustively blocks sites featuring political dissent — from discussion of secession by minority groups to criticism of Pakistan’s military’s budget by Western media outlets.

Often, the behavior of Muslim communities has played into the hands of state censors. At one extreme, Islamist groups that have stoked violent protests of blasphemy create a culture of fear that has paralyzed even progressive politicians. At the other, the young, networked protesters that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have driven the fearful regimes left behind, like Bahrain’s, to further crackdowns.

These countries are vulnerable to the exploitation of religious sentiment because they lack the cultural norms and legal infrastructure required for protecting free expression. This is especially true when that expression takes place on the Internet. Some of the countries threatening new crackdowns lack a single law specifically addressing Internet freedom. Others, like Pakistan, have plenty of Internet laws in place — all of them banning its various "objectionable" uses. By contrast, Lebanon, the Muslim country with the strongest culture of Internet freedom, is distinguished by strong laws proscribing censorship, and even a regulatory agency charged with "liberalizing" telecommunications.

State censors often rely on technology from Western companies to crack down on Internet access. These aren’t passive relationships. The companies involved must maintain regularly updated lists of websites to be blocked — featuring everything from skepticism about Islam to political dissent. For example, the computer security software company McAfee, owned by Intel, provides its SmartFilter technology to censors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Tunisia. The Canadian content-filtering company Netsweeper, meanwhile, blocks websites for Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Pakistan. San-Diego based WebSense provided a similar service to an ISP in Yemen.

With one exception, those companies and others like them have remained tight-lipped on the subject of Internet freedom. Representatives from McAfee, Netsweeper, and others declined to comment for this article. The lone exception, WebSense, is a stark illustration of what can and should be common practice: Upon discovering an ISP utilizing its technology to censor content, the company worked to disable the provider’s capacity to do so and collaborated with watchdog groups to decry the practice.

The technology sector must do more to follow that lead and hold companies that sell services to state censors accountable. With censorship tied to religion in so many of these countries, companies will need to proceed with sensitivity. But fears of religious violence offer no defense of the censorship of political dissent. Companies should start by no longer maintaining lists of websites to be blocked based on politics. Making that behavior a reality will require industry-wide action. To that end, technology executives should create a consortium of companies committed to increasing transparency and oversight.

Other industries have successfully self-regulated on divisive issues. In the wake of the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, nuclear utility executives banded together to create a safety oversight group — the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations — that is widely regarded as having improved nuclear safety. The chemical industry responded to similar public debacles with the Responsible Care program, committing companies responsible for 90 percent of the world’s chemical production to standards for safety and environmental protection, with mixed results. The movie and music industries have long self-enforced rating standards. These self-regulation efforts aren’t perfect, but they are meaningful attempts to take responsibility.

In the technology sector, there have been tentative steps in the right direction: The Global Networking Initiative, established in 2008, works to reform the behavior of technology companies with regard to human rights and freedom of expression. But its member list remains long on human rights groups and short on corporations that actually sell services to state censors. Technology companies need to start taking responsibility themselves.

Like the chemical and nuclear industries before it, the technology sector faces a turning point. Violence continues to mount in countries where tech companies help governments restrict the freedom of their people. Their reputations, not to mention the rights of millions, are at stake. It’s time for them to act.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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