Impact of Office Locations on the Policies of Multinational Companies: the Cases of Facebook and Twitter

The world’s largest corporations today are global in the scope of their business, and thus speak grandiosely of the death of commercial “borders.” However, just as we are in an era when some countries are looking to withdraw from regional alliances (the UK from the EU, the U.S. from the multilateral treaty with Iran), individual nations are increasingly attempting—too often successfully—to impose their political agendas on these corporations in return for permission to sell to their citizens.

If those companies also shape the way businesses, NGOs, governments and ordinary citizens communicate with each other—as the social media giants now do—this interference or collaboration (depending on the form it takes) can pose extraordinary risks to universal human rights such as freedom of thought and expression.

 

Call to action

It is time for both governments and international “media” corporations to sign on to global standards for the protection of human rights. In the meantime, businesses entrusted with channeling “citizen speech” should take care to locate their office hubs in countries with governments with reputations for protecting these rights, both within and outside their borders.

 

Background

Social media companies Facebook and Twitter have grown into mega companies employing tens of thousands of people and serving customers around the globe. To stay close to their customers and the advertisers that fuel their business, the two companies have opened offices on every continent. Facebook alone employs more than 35,000 people in 87 offices in 35 countries. (Twitter is much smaller, with only 4,100 employees as of April 2019. Nonetheless, it has 33 offices in 19 countries.) Such a network of locations attracts greater investment, creates jobs and fosters international thinking. On the other hand, this strategy also subjects the companies to widely varying local laws and practices—including those that violate users’ privacy, control exposure to ideas, censor dissent and even squelch expression altogether.

This risk is greatest in countries with governments that are dictatorial, autocratic, populist and/or abusive to minorities or other categories of residents—a trend that is today on the rise.

 

Chilling examples

Gulf Countries

The Middle East in particular is rife with examples. Consider the UAE: In 2015, activists charged that a prominent academic, economist Nasser Bin Ghaith, was arrested for his critical tweets — the day before Twitter opened its regional office inside the Gulf country. The charges stemmed from a series of tweets in which he criticized the Egyptian regime, an ally of the UAE, for failing to hold anyone accountable for the 2013 Raba’a Square massacre in Cairo, as well as tweets claiming he had not been granted a fair trial as a result. Bin Ghaith was arrested in Abu Dhabi, then taken to an undisclosed location, where he was denied access to his family, lawyer and medical treatment for nearly eight months until he was granted his first hearing. He was sentenced to 10 years and is still serving today.

In 2018, Twitter faced public charges of employing spies for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in its Dubai office. The spies are believed to have “outed” dissident journalist Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser, who tweeted under a pseudonym about human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia and criticized the royal family. He then was detained, tortured and killed.

Likewise, this fall, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum warned Emirati social media users about the spread of “misinformation” about the country. Al Maktoum, who is also the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, issued a six-point letter, titled “A message for the new season.” In the letter, he warned social media users against spreading misinformation to attract followers, arguing that doing so imperiled the UAE’s reputation abroad and jeopardized “achievements for which thousands of teams worked so hard to realize.”

Saudi Arabia is a sophisticate in this arena as well—even without Twitter’s active cooperation. Mona Elswah, a researcher at the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University, told Al-Jazeera that Twitter is used now "to demobilize the opposition, to target whoever is confronting the government ... It’s a tool of coercion." Although it is happening in most countries in the region, Al-Jazeera reported, the stranglehold governments have on the Twittersphere is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where its 10 million users make it the biggest Middle Eastern market. 

"It's amazing, if I say anything about Saudi Arabia on Twitter, I get attacked by hundreds of bots every single time," says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Will Twitter fight such pressure if it is not forced to? Shailesh Rao, Twitter’s vice president for the Asia Pacific, Latin America and emerging markets, said recently that, “The Gulf region, UAE and—in particular Saudi Arabia—represent some of the largest groups of active internet users of Twitter and will most likely continue to be the driving centers for our growing presence.”

It is probably that Twitter will want to stay on the good side of these countries’ governments, unless a pact governing human rights can be forged.

 

Israel

However, some of the most recent and egregious examples are found in Israel, where Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Intel are among more than 300 multinationals that have opened research-and-development facilities.

Facebook brought its operations there in 2013. Three years later, a team from Facebook met with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan—who spearheads the fight against the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement. The aim of the meeting, according to a statement released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office at the time, was improved "cooperation against incitement to terror and murder.”

Facebook's head of policy and communications in Israel, Jordana Cutler, confirmed this claim in a recent interview, saying the company works "very closely with the cyber departments in the justice ministry and the police and with other elements in the army and the Shin Bet." Cutler, it should be noted, is a former senior adviser to Netanyahu.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also visited Israel, meeting with President Reuven Rivlin and giving him a signed copy of her book “Option B.” She posted on her Facebook page that she admires “him for standing up for diversity and kindness across the country.”

In 2017, a report by the Israeli Ministry of Justice said its cyber unit documented 2,241 cases of objectionable online content and succeeded in getting 70 percent of it removed. (The Guardian later documented a 90 percent track record.) In contrast, critics point out that violent threats and other harassment on Israeli social media rarely attract scrutiny from either Facebook or the Israeli government. 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, recorded about 474,250 racist or provocative posts against Arabs on social networks throughout 2018.

Mahmoud Hassan, a lawyer for the prisoners' rights group Addameer, reports that it documented more than 300 cases of Palestinians arrested by Israel in 2017 due to their Facebook posts.

Iyad Alrefaie, cofounder of Sada Social, a group launched by three Palestinian journalists to document "violations against Palestinian content," also edits a platform called Quds News Network. In 2016, three of its executives had their accounts blocked by Facebook. Its YouTube channel also was suspended for allegedly violating "community guidelines." 

"I think every Palestinian user or platform on social media now thinks twice before publishing anything," said Alrefaie. 

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that it’s an Israeli company that is exporting a spyware product that infects social-messaging channels like Facebook-owned WhatsApp, allowing governments such as Saudi Arabia to eavesdrop on dissidents. Earlier this year, Amnesty International announced it is supporting legal action to take the Israeli Ministry of Defense to court to force it to revoke the export license of NSO Group, whose spyware products have been used by Saudi Arabia and others in attacks on human rights defenders around the world.

This type of negative publicity, which is finally breaking into mainstream media, has provoked token gestures of fairness. Netanyahu’s son, the 27-year-old Yair, was temporarily banned from Facebook recently after a series of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian posts that social network agreed broke its rules on hate speech. Facebook confirmed the ban after Yair tweeted that the company blocked him after he called for revenge against “those monsters,” following the fatal shooting of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian at a bus station in the West Bank. The prime minister’s son also called in his Facebook posts for the expulsion of Palestinians, writing that he wanted all Muslims to leave Israel.

Until now, however, such examples are in the minority.

 

The Way Forward

The global marketplace has evolved to the extent that multinational companies must consider human rights equally with profits. Hatred, violence and suppression of healthy dissent must not be given to “oxygen” they require to breathe.

We call on multinational companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to commit to a code of ethics that discourages hate and violence while permitting freedom of speech, including dissent. Governments must be pressured by their citizens and international bodies to join them.

Since this will take time and participation will be uneven, we also call on these companies to locate headquarters and regional offices in countries without extensive records of human rights violations and suppression of democracy.