Earl, Maher, and Pan’s recent article (2022), “The Digital Repression of Social Movements, Protest, and Activism: a synthetic review,” captures digital repression across states and presents invaluable conceptualizations of difficult concepts and clear typologies. The article illuminates many threads that need further development and study. Among them are the role of private industry in digital repression, along with the tie between cybersecurity laws in non-democratic contexts and the struggle over questions of international cybersecurity norms and international internet governance.
The Role of Private Industry
Often market access and corporate profit are framed as the singular cause of the behavior of the major social media platforms in foreign markets. Certainly, these are major components to company behavior vis-à-vis governments, including repressive governments. But, companies, particularly those from democratic contexts, do not always side with governments—even when it may hurt profits. Company rhetoric and behavior often illustrates some commitment to a sense of liberal values. It would be wrong to overstate this commitment, but it should be considered as a complicating element in understanding companies’ behavior.
As Earl, Maher, and Pan note, companies based in the United States operate all over the world and, therefore, have become deeply embedded in not only social life but dissent in many places. These platforms exist within particular legal contexts, but they come out of a specific cultural framework of speech protection. As Earl (2012) also points out, although protesters’ speech and assembly are legally protected in some types of public spaces in the United States, because major social media platforms are privately owned, the online space they create and support is not public space. While platforms located in the United States are themselves protected under the First Amendment, the people using them are operating within a private space. But, in spite of this, companies expend great amounts of energy in communicating care for freedom of expression to consumers and governments. The work around freedom of expression may only be instrumental, but it also appears to impact some company decisions around content moderation.
Born within a US context, these international companies find themselves in a position to adjudicate between government definitions of appropriate content and activist work to hold governments accountable—while also trying to maintain their access to markets. It is true that the desire to maintain access to markets means these companies actively and passively collaborate with governments to address government repression goals, as Earl, Maher, and Pan illustrate. However, companies do not always side with government. Instead, they engage in a range of negotiations between government desire, company profits, and sometimes a protection of dissent that appears to line up with an attempt to do what is “right” in a conflict between government and citizens. More research is needed to address the causal mechanisms that appear to stretch beyond a focus on market conditions for platform behavior. For instance, in forthcoming work Trung-Anh Nguyen unpacks the ways in which a non-democratic regime such as the Vietnamese government can circumvent the space that platforms like Facebook may create for dissent when they use companies’ content moderation policies and other types of pressure outside of platforms. In 2020, for example, the Vietnamese government requested that Facebook block anti-government materials on the site. Facebook did not comply. In response, the Vietnamese government had internet service providers throttle Facebook until Facebook conceded to its demands. In contrast, following the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, Facebook moved quickly to reduce the distribution of military and affiliated authored materials, removed the ability for government actors to send content removal requests via channels the company has created for governments, and said the company was protecting political speech.
A cultural foundation in liberal speech values may be one input into company decisions that have lasting repercussions for activists. Other sets of assumptions may matter as well, such as criticism that Facebook has tended to view state-society relations through a US or democracy-centric lens without any deep expertise in other contexts. The blind spots can have deep and terrible consequences, as the UN found when it argued that Facebook played a “determining role” in the violence against the Rohingya in 2017.
Cybersecurity Laws & International Internet Governance
Non-democratic countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Myanmar, increasingly include online dissent as part of their cybersecurity laws, under terms such disruption to social stability or unity. This type of cybersecurity law usually requires data to be stored within the country’s borders and assures government access to the data. These policies concern companies, proponents of a free and open internet, and activists, alike. And, their proliferation is tied to an argument at the international level about international cybersecurity norms and international internet governance, which focuses on whether decisions about the international internet and its uses should be made solely by governments or by multiple stakeholders that include governments.
In early 2022, China and Russia issued a Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development. The statement covered a range of topics but included material about information and communication technology. It asserted, among other things, that “the sides…believe that any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security are unacceptable.” This focus on sovereignty is mirrored in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s 2015 International Code of Conduct for Information Security, which was submitted to the UN General Assembly (A/69/723).
In contrast, the US led Declaration for the Future of the Internet asserts that:
Over the last year, the United States has worked with partners from all over the world – including civil society, industry, academia, and other stakeholders to reaffirm the vision of an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet and reverse negative trends in this regard. Under this vision, people everywhere will benefit from an Internet that is unified unfragmented; facilitates global communications and commerce; and supports freedom, innovation, education and trust.
These debates are occurring within a context of continuing global inequality in international internet infrastructure and internet governance—as the work of scholars such as Fernanda Rosa highlight.
Earl, Maher, and Pan rightfully point out that governance is different from repression in that repression is “designed to prevent, reduce, and/or control noninstitutional challenges (e.g., protest, social movements, and activism) and is distinct from broader carceral systems that govern many kinds of activity.” However, these debates generate the underlying opportunity structures for both digital repression and information and communication technologies as pathways for dissent. The international debates focused on forming international cybersecurity norms and the future state of international internet governance – including the questions of whether current ideals of a single, open international internet should remain (or be) the aspiration of the international community—are going to deeply impact the future of dissent inside countries. The work of those who focus on these spheres should be included in conversations about digital repression.