In a world where tech companies’ valuations are higher than most countries, who’s the one in power?
A decade-long battle for power between governments and tech companies is once again in the spotlight as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. In a series of escalations between Meta (formerly Facebook) and Russia, the social media giants’ apps are set to be banned in the country, this includes Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has filed a petition “to recognise Meta Platforms Inc. as an extremist organisation”, which threatens the future existence of any Meta products in the country.
How does a social network become an extremist organisation?
It all started in early March, when Facebook revealed it was suppressing content from Russian state-affiliated media and continuing to fact-check claims made by those organisations. In response, Russia banned Facebook in the country.
Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs at Meta, took to Twitter to protest the ban, saying that “millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out.” The White House also accused Russia of banning Facebook to “choke off information”.
On the Russian government's decision to block access to Facebook in the Russian Federation: pic.twitter.com/JlJwIu1t9K
— Nick Clegg (@nickclegg) March 4, 2022
Whilst Facebook was banned in the country, other Meta products such as Instagram and WhatsApp continued to function. That is until Meta’s decision on Friday to temporarily alter its guidelines to allow calls for violence against Russian soldiers, also allowing “violent speech… targeting Russians where it’s clear that the context is the Russian invasion”.
In response, Russia took action to designate Meta as an extremist organisation, with bans expected on all the company’s products and services.
Note that allowing calls for violence against civilians is a first for Meta. During the Israeli raid on Palestinian civilians in May, the company prohibited such language against the invading army. Facebook even frequently removed pro-Palestine messages.
Can governmental bans be circumvented?
The impact of the ban on the average Russian is not clear yet. Whilst users may simply switch to other apps, they might also use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent the ban.
A VPN allows people to access restricted content by pretending that their device is positioned somewhere else in the world. Top10VPN reports that demand for VPNs in Russia jumped by 1000% on March 5th, when the country blocked Facebook.
VPN providers have reported a significant increase in downloads, with Surfshark’s weekly sales increasing by 3500% in Russia. However, the ban will undoubtedly harm Russian business owners relying on Facebook Ads to reach more customers. This, coupled with a sanctioned economy, creates a threat for business owners in the country.
Tech companies themselves can sometimes bypass such bans too. The most prominent example of this is currently taking place by Twitter.
Earlier in March, the Russian government slowed down Twitter’s website as punishment for not deleting anti-Russian content. This isn’t the first time a restricting government has banned the social network. In 2021, Twitter deleted tweets made by the Nigerian president where he threatened a minority population with violence. As a result, the Nigerian government banned the service in the country, a move that Donald Trump praised at the time.
Twitter was also banned many times by dictatorial regimes during the Arab Spring. Research conducted by the Dubai School of Government concluded that social media “played a critical role in mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change”.
It’s not just social media that faces such bans. During the Egyptian revolution, the government restricted access to the internet entirely, with reports estimating that “88% of the Egyptian internet has fallen off the internet”, essentially disconnecting the country.
To avoid such bans both now and in the future, Twitter launched a Tor Onion service. This allows anyone in the world to access Twitter without even needing to use a VPN.
Additionally, governments cannot track the activity on websites accessed through Tor, giving further privacy to users in those countries. Accessing a Tor service is not straightforward however, so the general population may not adopt it. On the other hand, it does open the door for other tech companies to make their services accessible worldwide without needing to please governments.
What happens when tech companies ban a government?
Russia is currently facing widespread sanctions, where people see many services restricted. Many of these restrictions are taking place by private companies rather than the Russian government.
Companies such as Facebook were restricting content made by Russian state accounts, signifying that the social media giant has the power to impact how the regime can communicate with its citizens. Others took it even further, completely banning access to their services in Russia.
Sony and Google cut access to their online stores in Russia, rendering their products almost useless in the country. Apple disabled its contactless payment method, Apple Pay, leading to long queues in Russia’s metros as people struggled to pay for public transport.
Whilst these sanctions have their reasons, they also come at severe costs, not just to the Russian population but also to the world.
The sight of Russians unable to access government-owned public transport will likely lead Putin and other world leaders to avoid relying on private companies. Why allow your citizens to depend on an external service that may disappear overnight? This goes for social networks too, which are often the primary source for governments to communicate with their people.
When Australia tried to impose fees on Facebook for re-sharing news, the company banned all news pages in the country, sending many government pages offline. Australia backtracked on the law, and Facebook reversed its ban.
One needn’t be a pessimist to see the warning signs. The future may consist of governments building their own internal tools, which tend to have a poorer user experience and significantly fewer built-in privacy features. In essence, tech companies may have accidentally given Putin an excuse to turn Russia’s internet into China’s, one that the state heavily regulates.
Who should have the power?
The discussion over who should define free speech and have ultimate censorship power is subject to heavy debate. Some believe that since tech companies own their platform, they should decide what is shared on it. Some believe that tech companies should not be the arbitrators of free speech and that they should only lie within a democratically elected government. Others believe that such censorship contradicts freedom of speech entirely.
The debate gets more complicated when you factor in the differing interpretations by governments of what consists of ‘free speech’. Likewise, each tech company has different policies for moderation.
The reality is that everyone draws the line differently for what should and shouldn’t be said online. As a result, tech companies and governments find themselves in similar positions, each scrutinised for failing to define free speech correctly. Seemingly, neither want the responsibility of doing so. Yet, in an effort to prevent the other from controlling them, they race to police one other and grab power they don’t necessarily want.
This battle doesn’t just take place within authoritarian regimes such as that of Russia, but also exists in countries such as the US. “Big tech” has received criticism from the left-wing for censoring too little and from the right-wing for censoring too much, with former President Donald Trump launching his own social media company.
The problem of deciding who can say what online runs deeper than Russia, the US and the Arab Spring. It is one that will only grow more important – and controversial – over time.
With more of our conversations moving online, and the potential of a metaverse just a few years away, the impact of our decisions now will be felt for generations to come.