Arab regimes use power over corporate ‘residents’ to restrict citizens’ freedoms online, ImpACT tells Human Rights Council

Geneva – An analysis documenting the negative consequences of digital corporations’ decision to locate offices in repressive countries was presented today on the sidelines of the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council by ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies.

Titled “Impact of Geographic Location of Social Media Companies on Human Rights Practices,” the analysis showed that when companies such as Facebook and Twitter establish offices in countries led by oppressive regimes, journalists, activists and political opponents often see their freedom of expression severely curtailed due to the resulting collaboration between host and business.  

Moderator Aya Saif called on governments to end their attempts at censorship via social media restrictions and on digital companies to avoid locating in such countries until all parties sign on to a pledge to protect users’ human rights, including freedom of expression and dissent.

If you can’t silence it, buy it! Rich regimes in the Middle East offer a new way of controlling social media platforms

- Khalil Agha, Digital Media Advisor at ImpACT

“More than a third of adults globally now use digital platforms to interact with the external world, particularly during elections and social unrest,” said Khalil Agha,  digital media advisor at ImpACT. "It’s not surprising, then, that governments that oppress minorities or lack democratic traditions—such as Egypt, Sudan and Israel—try to manipulate these channels to suppress dissent. It is vital that we enlist Facebook, Twitter and other digital gatekeepers in a global effort to protect freedom in the marketplace of ideas.”

One of the abuses highlighted at the seminar is the blocking of the Facebook accounts of many Palestinians—massive enough to suggest a coordinated campaign—for months at a time or even permanently. Examples have been documented in which Palestinians’ accounts have been suspended merely for liking a post exposing abusive behavior by Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip. The location of a Facebook office in Israel preceded this trend.

Other countries where such patterns have occurred include the Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We live in a time when corporations—including social media companies—operate across borders and must locate closer to their diverse customers and users. That means they are subject to local pressures and regulations,” said Selin Yasar, spokesperson for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Right Monitor.

“In the Middle East, particularly the Gulf region, Twitter and Facebook users know that posting anything critical of their governments will likely unleash a storm of opposing and offensive responses, usually by bots or paid propagandists.”

The seminar concluded with the recommendation that Facebook, Twitter and other multinational companies commit to a code of ethics that respects privacy and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Governments must be pressured by their citizens and international bodies to join them.

National security cannot justify violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," stated Mohammad Al Moghabat, senior researcher at Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement. “Especially in the Middle East, manipulate the internet to silence critical voices. We must not make it easy for them.”

Full Analysis ► Here