OPINION: Content takedowns on social media facilitate censorship in Asia

Tuesday, 26 April 2022 08:15 GMT

A Facebook user logs in on his mobile at a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kham

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rules introduced in Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia over the past year enforce shorter and stricter time frames for tech companies to remove content, to the detriment of people’s right to freedom of expression and information.

Dhevy Sivaprakasam is Access Now's Asia Pacific Policy Counsel. Raman Jit Singh Chima is Asia Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now. 

Last week, reports emerged that Vietnam will soon introduce rules pressuring social media platforms to “immediately” take down content that harms national security, remove illegal live-streams within three hours, and other illegal content within 24 hours.

Even without these penalties in place, Facebook had capitulated to state pressure in 2020 to censor information on an escalating land conflict in the village of Dong Tam. When thousands of police officers raided the village with tear gas, activists reporting on the conflict found their posts were taken down or blocked.

With the new rules, not only Facebook but other platforms like TikTok and Twitter will also be legally forced to police their platforms in line with the state’s definition of “security”.

Vietnam’s government is only the latest in Asia to take this approach to so-called unlawful content online. Rules introduced in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia over the past year all enforce shorter and stricter time frames on tech companies to remove content when ordered by the state on the basis of national security.

India’s regulations of Feb. 2021 oblige social media intermediaries like Twitter and Facebook to take down content “threatening the security of India” within 24 hours of receiving a complaint from any person, and 36 hours from receiving a government order.

In February this year, Bangladesh introduced regulations against not only social media platforms, but any digital or Over-The-Top platform to take down content “threatening” national security within 72 hours.

Last month, reports emerged of new rules in Indonesia that would require all “internet system operators” — including not only social media platforms but e-commerce, fintech, and telecommunications companies — to respond to “urgent” take-down requests relating to “security, terrorism or public order” within four hours.

While governments claim these rules are necessary for security and public order, none of these laws were informed by consultation with key stakeholders such as the technology companies, civil society, academia, technical experts or the public.

India tried to pass its regulations in secret, then was forced to hold a public consultation where the rules were substantively criticised. Nevertheless, the government pushed the regulations into force in the middle of a pandemic and despite protests. The laws have now been partly suspended due to court orders, with challenges filed across Indian states.

Similarly, Bangladesh notionally provided for inadequate engagement, while in Indonesia and Vietnam, where the regulations have only just been leaked to the public, there have been no consultations so far.

Had consultations been held, states would have heard concerns that shortening time frames for platforms to respond on content takedowns would not make content removal more effective or faster — particularly in populous countries such as India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Shorter time frames would only pressure platforms to comply-first-evaluate-later — over-removing content in a knee-jerk reaction to avoid penalties, to the detriment of people’s right to freedom of expression and information.

It is also apparent the national security aim in itself is not legitimate, given the rights records of the governments. Vietnam has aggressively controlled freedom of expression by imprisoning dozens of individuals who have shared posts on Facebook and YouTube for undermining national security, while Indonesia’s new limitations on “terrorism” content online will likely increase already-curtailed reporting of rights violations from areas like West Papua. Indian police visited Twitter’s office after a post by the ruling party’s spokesperson was labelled as “manipulated media,” and Bangladesh has abused the Digital Security Act to subject individuals to arrest, detention, enforced disappearance and torture.

These newly-minted takedown regulations appear to be yet another tool of control for regimes to silence critical dissent. International law allows for freedom of expression and information to be restricted for national security — but in very narrow, strictly defined circumstances. Genuine regulatory measures must be subject to transparent public consultation; be narrow and specific in scope to reduce executive abuse; and provide for independent and effective judicial or regulatory oversight, and remedial mechanisms as a safeguard. The new laws do not pay heed to any of these principles.

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