Last Thursday, Twitter sued the federal government. At issue was a demand from the Department of Homeland Security that Twitter reveal the user(s) behind an account critical of the Trump administration. The government withdrew its request the next day, and the issue seemingly drew to a close. But this is not the end.
The DHS request came on the heels of another Trump administration move that could be viewed as hostile to internet freedom. On April 2, President Trump signed a bill passed last month releasing internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and AT&T from having to protect consumer data, in effect jeopardizing people’s privacy and opening them up to surveillance. And FCC Chair Ajit Pai is planning to weaken net neutrality rules, which would allow ISPs to create fast lanes for preferred internet traffic while slowing other traffic sources.
“If we don’t have net neutrality, the ISPs could slow people who are talking about, for example, going to a rally,” says Kate Forscey, associate counsel at Public Knowledge, a free speech organization. “It’s not just about streaming Netflix—it’s about fundamental engagement in a democratic environment.” Against this backdrop, the DHS’s attempt to strong-arm Twitter looks less like a defeat and more like a testing of the waters.
These developments don’t on their own spell internet censorship. Rather, they lay the groundwork for it: They create the conditions that allow a regime, whether it’s headed by Trump or another administration down the line, to squelch dissent. It’s part of a broader trend around the world, in which numerous governments are whittling away at internet freedoms.
“On a global level social media platforms have been facing growing censorship over the past year,” says Jessica White, an analyst at Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization. Twitter’s lawsuit put an end to one attempt by the Trump administration to undermine free online expression, but it is unlikely to be the last. It is just the freshest in a long string of ploys by governments around the world to solidify their power over online communities.
In the US, social media companies have abided by an uneasy truce with the government, cooperating in criminal investigations—albeit reluctantly—by handing over user data. What makes Twitter’s most recent case noteworthy, however, was that the account in question, @ALT_USCIS, broke no laws and only used Twitter to voice dissent. The handle is a reference to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an office within DHS, and its tweets were supposedly the voice of current and former federal employees disillusioned with the Trump administration. After news of the lawsuit broke, the government withdrew its request and Twitter dropped the suit.
Yet attacks on free expression, particularly on social media, have been on the rise, at the same time as countries around the world are experiencing record-breaking protests. In March, for example, Russia saw its largest protests in five years after word of them spread on social media and messenger apps. The government responded by arresting hundreds of activists, in particular the people who had led the resistance movement online, charging them with extremism and organizing unlawful meetings. But even relatively more open governments are feeling the pressure to corral social media—take Brazil, for example, which temporarily blocked WhatsApp three times last year for not handing over user information.
Controlling dissent through censorship is a tried-and-true tactic of authoritarian governments, which have a long history of cracking down on newspapers, radio, and TV. Social media got a pass at first “because it’s new, and people who run these regimes are old,” says Joshua Tucker, a politics professor at New York University who specializes in Russian and Slavic studies. Now, he says, restrictive governments recognize that “it is important to control because of its importance for protest.”
Tucker and his colleagues recently analyzed the tactics authoritarian regimes use to control their country’s social media and found that governments often struggle to adopt effective measures—at least at first. China’s infamous “Great Firewall,” the surgically precise, vast technical and legal apparatus that many people think of when they think of internet censorship, was established in 1997, in the internet’s early days. Outside China, however, the internet developed freely, making technically sophisticated filtering operations like China’s virtually impossible without the same aggressive investments in infrastructure. During the failed coup in Turkey in 2016, for example, the government attempted to shut down Facebook and Twitter, primarily through DNS blocking and traffic throttling. But because the Turkish government does not have centralized control over the internet and relies on ISPs to carry out its orders, these measures were relatively easy to circumvent.
After trying and failing to restrict access to content, Great Firewall-style, governments are instead resorting to one of two approaches. Online, they are engaging on social media to try steer the narrative, either through their own posts or using bots and trolls. Offline, they are taking legal actions that change who is held liable for certain kinds of language.
“Changes to legal infrastructure are a big deal,” Tucker says. By changing “who is responsible for content, you can change the ownership structure of and access to online space.”
In Russia, for example, the government reportedly preferred a strategy of engagement on social media until roughly 2012, when Putin returned to power amid massive protest. Then the government pivoted to focus on the second strategy, attempting to control social media through legislative actions: It passed “anti-extremism” laws restricting access to content related to political opposition under the guise of fighting terrorism. The change in approach prompted Freedom House to revise its designation for Russia from “partly free” in 2014 to “not free”—and one of the most locked down in the world.
The same transition is now under way in Zimbabwe, where the internet is still classified as “partly free.” Robert Mugabe, 90, has been experimenting with ways to restrict social media access since the summer, when the country saw the largest protests in the dictator’s 30 year rule, organized primarily through WhatsApp. In January, Mugabe tried raising mobile data rates, putting internet access out of reach for the vast majority of the population. The move backfired, affecting government officials as much as ordinary citizens, so the rate hike was reversed days later. “The battle is not yet over,” says Nhlanhla Ngwenya, director of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. The government “already has an arsenal of legislative instruments to impinge on my rights online.”
A bill passed in 2015, for example, gives Zimbabwe’s government access to user data collected by ISPs — not too far off from the US’s new ISP bill and the DHS’s Twitter meddling. Now the Zimbabwean legislature is considering a bill that redefines “cyber terrorism” to include any language critical of the state, while also making ISPs liable for the content they host. If the bill passes, the government will have the authority to order ISPs to take down any material it finds objectionable.
“This is coming up not only in places like Zimbabwe, but also in Europe and the US,” White says. There are legitimate reasons for trying to regulate speech online, such as banning harassment and hate speech, which are not protected under the First Amendment. But laws that dictate what speech is acceptable and what is not are often dicey, and can be a “slippery slope to censorship,” Tucker says. Germany and Italy are both contemplating bills that would criminalize fake news. California recently tried the same. Says White: “In terms of creating legal provisions criminalizing fake news, that’s very tricky.”
Whether the goal is restricting online extremism or the spread of “fake news,” the legal framework is largely the same. “When democratic countries start implementing similar provisions it’s very problematic,” White says. “One of the key questions is who gets to decide what’s true or not. To create a centralized body thats gets to decide what is fake news or not, that doesn’t seem like a great idea.”
In 2016, Freedom House ranked the US as having one of the most free webs in the world. Trump’s first 100 days are likely to knock it down a few rungs. “Specific steps have been taken that provide us with reasonable grounds to consider downgrading” the US, says White, although at this point they “can’t tell by how much.” Now Freedom House lists the US under “countries to watch,” along with Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Denmark. With countries around the world reconsidering their internet freedoms, democracy falters.
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