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Rising Internet Censorship Threatens Digital Trade

· July 29, 2021

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Among the most explicit barriers to digital trade are the outright filtering and blocking of Internet platforms and Internet shutdowns, a trend that continues to grow.  Internet firms have long faced censorship demands in markets like China, but are now facing increasingly hostile markets around the world.

Access Now documented over 50 Internet shutdowns in 21 countries just in the first five months of 2021.  There has also been a rise in online content restrictions and regulations.  Many U.S. companies including Google, Twitter, and Facebook publish transparency reports that detail increased cases of Internet service disruptions, government requests for data, and content takedowns.  Facebook states that its services were interrupted 91 times in 18 countries in the second half of 2020, compared to 52 disruptions in nine countries during the first half of 2020.  

Just last month, Nigeria announced an “indefinite ban” on Twitter in the country following the company’s decision to remove posts from political leaders that violated its abusive behavior policy.  In response to political protests, Cuban authorities blocked access to many U.S. social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter in July.  And Russia continues to throttle Internet services in the region, now through novel methods, and expand government control over online content. 

There has also been a rise in content regulations that directly conflict with U.S. law and free expression values.  Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net Reports have observed a concerning trend in recent years among authoritarian governments pursuing content regulations to fight so-called “fake news”, which often go beyond standard efforts to remove disinformation and instead have the primary effect of targeting dissidents and political opposition.

This trend is illustrated in two key regions: Turkey and India. 

Following years of government-imposed shutdowns and deployment of censorship tools, Turkey passed a new law in 2020 that grants the government sweeping new powers to regulate content on social media.  Under the new rules, social media services with one million daily users are subjected to strict timelines for removal of certain content at the request of the government, required to appoint local representatives in Turkey, and must comply with additional localization measures.  Authorities were quick to take action against foreign services imposing fines, advertising bans, and bandwidth restrictions within months.  The new law has been criticized by Human Rights Watch as a tool for the government to further restrict online discourse and target individuals, and by the Committee to Protect Journalists as a way for the courts to “streamline[]” orders for “news reports to be blocked or removed from websites without a hearing”, among other criticism

Further concerning is the cited motivation for the new law. Turkish policymakers point to the controversial German Network Enforcement Act (“NetzDG”) regarding removal of hate speech that has also been subject to criticism since its enactment in 2017.  Cases like this illustrate that even content rules pursued with good faith intent to address harmful content online can be applied in a manner that has negative consequences for online speech, and may be used as an example for more authoritarian rules. 

In India, the growing hostility towards foreign Internet services is discouraging market access for technology services.  Indian policymakers and political leaders have increased censorship practices and increased restrictions on services that fail to take down content political leaders deem “objectionable”.  Pursuant to recent changes to the IT Act’s Intermediary Rules, intermediaries are now subject to strict timelines to remove specific content at the direction of government authorities.  To comply, some services may be required to deploy filtering tools that may lead to over removal of content.  There are also concerning law enforcement assistance provisions, including a requirement for intermediaries to “enable tracing out of such originators of information on its platform” at the request of government officials, as well as local incorporation and local presence requirements.  This is combined with unprecedented enforcement tactics targeting foreign services operating in the region. 

The case of India is particularly discouraging given its ambitions for the future of its growing digital economy.  With a reported 1.1 billion mobile phone subscribers and over 757 million Internet users, India is also a key market for Internet and technology service exporters.  The opportunity is there for the region to attract investment and become a leader in the global digital economy.  However, continued restrictions on foreign services and barriers to trade, in addition to pursuit of authoritarian practices that conflict with fundamental principles of the free and open Internet, diminish these chances. 

The U.S. International Trade Commission is currently conducting a timely two part investigation at the request of Congress to investigate trade implications of foreign censorship practices and the impact to U.S. businesses.  Policymakers should be following the rise in Internet censorship, and its threat to the rules-based trading system. 

Digital Trade

Companies rely on clear, predictable rules that facilitate digital trade to export their products and services around the world. These rules include balancing the competing interests between encouraging investment and enabling information access; promoting the free flow of information online; and maintaining balanced intermediary liability regimes.