The powers of elected governments are being overshadowed by internet, media, and entertainment corporate oligarchs, as well as powerful bureaucrats who reject the concept of free speech or, in America, the enforcement of the First Amendment.
Contrary to popular impressions, it’s not just an issue for Donald Trump or his conservative supporters, nor is it an issue that uniquely affects the United States.
Internet giants are now working comfortably with authoritarian governments that abhor the concept of free speech or representative government. Disturbingly, these corporations are importing the censorship techniques learned overseas for use in the United States.
Google’s relationship with Beijing grows as China has become even more repressive. Freedom House’s 2018 rankings notes that “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the media, online speech, religious groups, and civil society associations while undermining already modest rule-of-law reforms…”
The BBC has reported that Facebook worked on special software that accommodates China’s censorship demands. In 2016, Reuters reported that Facebook Inc. developed a censorship tool to persuade Beijing to allow it to work there.
The international publication Zinfos-Moris noted in September that “Facebook’s collusion with the corrupt wealthy and the dictators around the world has been happening for many years now…it has not gone unnoticed that entrenched authoritarian states, like Russia and China, have become very good at manipulating these platforms to marginalize domestic dissidents and destabilize democracies abroad.”
The relationship of Google and Facebook to totalitarian governments is truly troubling. Freedom House notes that Governments around the world have dramatically increased their efforts to manipulate information on social media over the past year. The Chinese and Russian regimes pioneered the use of surreptitious methods to distort online discussions and suppress dissent more than a decade ago, but the practice has since gone global.
The Committee to Protect Journalists found that “In Cuba (10th most censored), the Internet is available to only a small portion of the population, despite outside investment to bring the country online. China, despite having hundreds of millions of Internet users, maintains the “Great Firewall,” a sophisticated blend of human censors and technological tools, to block critical websites and rein in social media. In countries with advanced technology such as China, Internet restrictions are combined with the threat of imprisonment to ensure that critical voices cannot gain leverage online. Online content manipulation contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, along with a rise in disruptions to mobile internet service and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media. Nearly half of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net 2017 experienced declines during the coverage period, while just 13 made gains, most of them minor. Less than one-quarter of users reside in countries where the internet is designated Free, meaning there are no major obstacles to access, onerous restrictions on content, or serious violations of user rights in the form of unchecked surveillance or unjust repercussions for legitimate speech.”
According to BuzzFeed News, they have "identified more than 1,700 Twitter accounts that have been blocked in at least one country," and their data and analysis offer an "unprecedented glimpse into Twitter’s collaboration with national groups" and provides a stark reminder of Twitter’s ability to shape political conversations.
The latest example comes from Vietnam. An Amnesty International analysis demands that “Facebook must immediately reverse its decision to censor posts deemed critical of the government in Viet Nam.”
The concepts of censorship and exclusion from social media platforms pioneered in totalitarian nations, with the consent of social media providers, has been exported to the United States by those social media providers.
Across the planet, world leaders, even those not fond of Donald Trump or conservative views, have reacted against attempts by internet giants to censor the former president and become more powerful than elected governments.
Despite numerous ideological and international differences with Trump and his Republican base, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is determined to head an international campaign against the censorship of social media behemoths.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who similarly has opposed conservative perspectives, has openly expressed her fear of the rise to power of internet oligarchs.
A Forbes analysis disclosed that Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, said he was ‘shocked’ by Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, adding that ‘digital regulation should not be done by the digital oligarchy… (and) is a matter for the sovereign people, governments and the judiciary. Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock said tech companies were now ‘taking editorial decisions,’ adding that it is very clear that platforms are ‘choosing who should and shouldn’t have a voice on their platform.’”
Breitbart reports that Poland’s government has unveiled a draft law to combat censorship on social media, creating a Freedom of Speech Board with the power to order tech firms to restore online accounts and posts deleted for lawful speech on pain of substantial fines.
Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.