Deleted, suspended, demoted: Censorship, Silicon Valley-style - The Listening Post (Feature)

When Google launched almost 20 years ago, its corporate motto was "Don't be Evil". And until last year, Facebook's official mission was to "make the world more open and connected".

Things have changed since the two tech giants first came online. Both companies have been accused of working behind the scenes to silence or de-emphasise certain kinds of voices.

"Censorship has changed completely and dramatically because of the internet and because of particularly these big tech companies which are basically monopolies. They can end your existence online," says Robert Epstein, research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research & Technology.

n October 2016, an activist group The Palestinian Information Center saw accounts of 10 of its administrators suspended by Facebook. In April 2017, political analysis websites across the US began to see dramatic drops in their web traffic through Google. And in December 2017, Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas's Twitter account was deleted. He'd had 350,000 followers.

These are just some of the dozens of similar cases. In each, there was no prior warning, no specific reason given, and no avenue of redress provided.

"I think it's a huge danger. If anybody is interested in the free-flow of information, in people challenging their views by reading opposing views, I think you have to be concerned about three giant corporations deciding what information you can see, and what information you can't see," says Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer, Columbia Journalism Review.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are all under pressure from governments to get serious about fake news and hate speech on their platforms. The companies say, collectively, that thousands of moderators are now at work and new algorithms have been designed to filter out that kind of content.

"We're giving this kind of power to a group that is not responsible to the general public. We're not talking about a government agency which is required to do things in a transparent way, we're talking about a private company that does everything secretly," says Epstein.

But despite how opaque online censorship can be, sometimes the reasons really aren't all that invisible.

In July 2016, Facebook hired Jordana Cutler, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as its head of Policy and Communications for Israel. In October of that year, executives from Facebook met Israeli government officials. Soon after, numerous Palestinian activists found their accounts suspended for "violating Facebook's Community Standards".

Israel's justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, reportedly said "a year ago, Facebook removed 50 percent of content that we requested. Today, Facebook is removing 95 percent of the content we ask them to."

Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains that "these are all for-profit corporations whose main goal is to make money, please their shareholders and their advertisers, and so when these companies are faced with pressure from powerful governments they're, of course, going to do whatever they can to ensure that they don't get blocked there."

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