Censorship on Facebook increased 19% between the first six months of 2014 and the last six months of 2013, the company revealed on Tuesday. But censorship isn’t distributed evenly; some countries are more trigger-happy than others when asking Facebook to remove content.
Facebook only removed some content in 15 of the 83 counties listed on the network’s third transparency report. India leads the list of content removal; Facebook restricted 4,960 “pieces of content” from the country between January and June 2014. Turkey and Pakistan follow closely with 1,893 and 1,773 “pieces of content” removed, respectively.
After India, Turkey and Pakistan, there is a big gap. Facebook only removed 34 pieces of content from the No. 4 country on the list, Germany.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company restricts access to content only when it is “illegal under local law.” Facebook doesn’t release many details on the content it restricts — or what laws the restrictions are based on — but does explain the reasons for removals in each country, in broad strokes.
Facebook said that the requests came “primarily” from law enforcement officials and the India Computer Emergency Response Team.
These requests, according to Facebook, were based on “local laws prohibiting criticism of a religion or the state” — language that suggests some were to suppress political speech.
The situation is similar in Turkey, where content was primarily restricted “under local laws prohibiting defamation or criticism of Ataturk or the Turkish state.” For Zeynep Tufecki, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, this indicates some censorship, and Facebook should clarify what it restricts and why.
“I’d like to see breakdown of the censored content,” Tufecki told Mashable, referring also to requests for user data. “I don’t think anyone is going to object if they are sharing information with police in cases of probable cause in child abuse, for example. But we don’t know.”
Content in Pakistan was also restricted due to “local laws prohibiting blasphemy and criticism of the state.”
Censorship here has skyrocketed in recent months. In the first half of 2014, Facebook removed 1,773 “pieces of content” in Pakistan; in the previous six months, Facebook only removed 162 pieces of content.
Bolo Bhi, a human and digital rights advocacy group in Pakistan, believes that there is no legal basis for some of these restrictions.
In April, when Facebook’s second transparency report dropped, Bolo Bhi argued that there needs to be more clarity regarding what laws the authorities are using to censor content on Facebook. “Since when is criticism of the state illegal in Pakistan?” the group asked in a blog post.
Sana Saleem, one of the directors of Bolo Bhi, told Mashable that
it’s unclear whether the “vague” laws about criticizing the state even apply online
it’s unclear whether the “vague” laws about criticizing the state even apply online; it’s also unclear who is supposed to determine when they apply.
“When authorities cite criticism of the state, they don’t even need to cite certain laws in the first place,” Saleem explained in an email. “Facebook seems to be easily complying to requests without raising necessary questions.”
Pakistan was harshly criticized for its online censorship practices early last summer, when the government requestedthat Facebook block several pages, including that of a popular rock band and a series of left-wing political pages. Other pages inciting violence and hate speech against non-Muslims and some sects of Islam remained untouched, as Bolo Bhi noted in April.
India, Turkey and Pakistan underline a major issue that Facebook is facing as it grows: How can it reach countries with relatively fewer freedoms while still maintaining its idealistic ethos of connecting the entire world?
Sometimes, that means
Facebook has to make compromises; if it doesn’t comply with local laws, it could get blocked
Facebook has to make compromises; if it doesn’t comply with local laws, it could get blocked there. Pakistan, for example, blocked Facebook in 2010 after a page asked users to post drawings of the prophet Muhammad.
“We comply with government requests when we are required by law to comply. We routinely push back against law enforcement requests that are not consistent with our local law and international standards,” a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable. “We release these reports so that people can see the number of government requests for account information and the types of government requests to restrict or remove content from our service on the grounds that it violates local law.”
Other companies, like Twitter, publish details of the censorship requests they receive on ChillingEffects.org, a website that aims to make censorship and content takedown requests more transparent. Twitter voluntarily sends Chilling Effects copies of the legal requests it receives in Turkey, for example.
Facebook declined to comment on whether it plans to do the same, but online rights advocates believe that more transparency is needed — especially in countries where Facebook is, in essence, serving as the entire Internet.