Location matters: When digital companies open offices in repressive countries, censorship follows

London – Citing mounting incidents of cooperation between digital powerhouses—which host so much of the global conversations—and repressive governments, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies called today for international standards for business conduct in this arena.

An analysis conducted by the London-based think tank documents that when Facebook and Twitter locate offices in countries with governments known for human rights violations—notably Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia—the companies become complicit soon after in efforts to silence dissenters and political opponents.

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.”

When Facebook and Twitter locate offices in countries with governments known for human rights violations, they become complicit in efforts to silence political opponents. 

However, the actual result has been a concerted effort to suppress Palestinian social-media activity focused against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip.  In 2017, a report by the Israeli Ministry of Justice said its cyber unit documented 2,241 cases of “objectionable” online content shared by Palestinians and succeeded in getting 70 percent of it removed. (The Guardian later documented a 90 percent track record.) And last year, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, reported that Israeli authorities arrested around 350 Palestinians in the West Bank on charges of “incitement” because of their posts on social media—up from 300 arrests in 2017.

In contrast, critics point out that violent threats and other harassment on social media by Israelis rarely attract scrutiny. In contrast, the organization documented a “staggering” increase in incidents of racism and hate speech in pro-Israeli social media, calculating that an inciting post is made against a Palestinian every 66 seconds. The group counted 474,250 posts insulting or advocating violence against or racial profiling of Palestinians; in all posts about “Arabs,” one out of 10 contained an insult or call for violence.

"With Facebook’s active assistance, Israel’s control of Palestinians has extended beyond their physical territory to the online space,” says Martha Och, a researcher for ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies. “And Facebook is not alone. Twitter has a similar track record.”

With Facebook’s active assistance, Israel’s control of Palestinians has extended beyond their physical territory to the online space

Martha Och, a researcher for ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

Twitter has exploded in popularity in the Middle East, where governments are becoming increasingly repressive, aided and abetted by businesses wanting to sell to their consumers.

For example, one day before Twitter opened its regional office in the UAE, prominent economist Nasser Bin Ghaith was arrested for tweets critical of his own government as well as of the Egyptian regime, an ally. 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.

"Twitter users know in a very visceral way that posting anything critical of Gulf governments unleashes a huge number of opposing and offensive responses in minutes, usually by bots or by certain people who are paid to do so," says Och. “Cooperation from Twitter escalates the risk.”

That risk is real and growing. 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."

Thus, ImpACT is calling for global digital media companies to adopt standards protecting users’ human rights, including freedom of dissent and expression. Recognizing the power of governments to control behavior within their borders, ImpACT also calls on countries to pledge respect for these standards, and for citizens and international bodies both to pressure them to do so and monitor their compliance.

However, since government participation will take time and likely will be uneven, ImpACT also calls on these companies to locate headquarters and regional offices in countries that respect human rights standards.

“With global consolidation of media control and thus of our online dialogue, it is urgent to adopt universal human rights practices for businesses and the governments that host them,” Och concluded. "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 the ‘oxygen’ they require to flourish."

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