Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader whom the Russian secret police nearly killed with military-grade poison last year, is worried about Twitter’s decision to shut down Donald Trump’s account. Navalny is no Trump fan; he is far to the left of the outgoing U.S. president. The reason he is worried is that the way U.S. tech has ganged up on Trump and his most radical supporters can lead to his own deplatforming in Russia, where he has no access to state-controlled media and relies on mostly U.S.-based social networks — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — to spread his message. That’s a valid concern.
Navalny laid out his logic in an English-language Twitter thread. “In my opinion, the decision to ban Trump was based on emotions and personal political preferences,” he wrote. “Don’t tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone (not that I ask for it).”
He added: “Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russian and China of such private companies becoming the state’s best friends and enablers when it comes to censorship.” And, “This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”
I can’t say I was surprised to see American commentators jump in with condescending retorts telling Navalny that he doesn’t get it, that he doesn’t understand the importance of cracking down on insurrection or the right of private companies to police their platforms. The thing is, he nearly died defending Russians’ right to protest, and, as a corruption fighter, he’s spent more than a decade delving into the shadowy relationships between private companies and the state. If he hasn’t earned the right to be heard as an expert on such matters, I don’t know who has.
The private company argument simply doesn’t fly. Twitter and Facebook have tolerated Trump and his fans in all their glory — calls for journalists to be murdered, racist bile, direct threats — throughout the Trump presidency. Even if they said they didn’t, the stuff was impossible to miss as a user of the social platforms. Apple, Google and Amazon allowed the censorship-free platform Parler, frequented by the far right, to grow using their services until two things happened: the Capitol riot and the Georgia Senate elections that handed the Democrats full political control of the government.
I don’t know which of the two was the actual deciding factor in the tech giants’ Trump crackdown. But look at it from the point of view of someone fighting an authoritarian regime in Russia, Turkey, Belarus or elsewhere. What you’ll see is the U.S. president-elect declaring protesters who broke into a government building “domestic terrorists” — and an immediate response from the tech companies, which fall all over themselves trying to prove they aren’t providing so-called “terrorists” with a platform. Are they suddenly outraged because a Democratic administration, in control of the House and Senate, can quickly regulate them in all kinds of painful ways? Seen from Russia, or Turkey or China, where concerns about politically motivated regulatory moves by single-party governments are top of mind for every business owner, this picture is familiar.
One could argue that even if U.S.-based tech platforms have rushed to align themselves with the political winners in their country to avoid a costly confrontation, they won’t do the same for Russian President Vladimir Putin or his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s more complicated than that. On paper, authoritarian regimes’ terrorism and insurrection laws are similar to those of the U.S. Now, the regimes have cover to demand from the U.S. networks that they ban Russian, Turkish, Belarussian “domestic terrorists” on the same grounds as the ones used against Trump and Trumpists — inciting aggressive, violent protest. And if the platforms refuse, they will be accused of double standards, declared tools of the U.S. government and themselves harassed and possibly banned. That one-two combination wasn’t possible before, because even authoritarians these days have to pay lip service to freedom of speech; what the platforms have done takes that concern out of the equation. Russian propagandists such as Margarita Simonyan, head of the RT channel, have long waited for such a golden opportunity to agitate for retaliation against U.S. platforms, ever since they started flagging content from Russian government-funded media.
Where would a Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ban leave people like Navalny? They’d be confined to any start-up platforms that emerge to pick up the slack, and to Telegram, the Dubai-based platform created by Russian libertarian Pavel Durov, which the Russian government tried to block but failed, as Telegram fought back by ingenious technical means. But even for Telegram, which isn’t U.S.-based, running uncensored content is dangerous these days — like Parler, it could be thrown out of app stores, for example (although Telegram has been working on a full-featured mobile browser-based version for just such an eventuality).
The U.S. tech platforms, of course, weren’t set up to enable political opposition to authoritarian regimes. They are commercial enterprises that exist to make money by selling ads. It’s probably a strategic mistake for any opposition figure in any country to put their eggs in this basket. But given the platforms’ oligopolistic nature, there hasn’t been much choice.
In today’s world, if a platform is to enable free speech, it needs to be technologically extraterritorial — free from reliance on any providers sensitive to pressure from nation states. Both legally and financially, building such a platform is an enormous challenge. But then, I remember a time when authoritarian rulers failed despite banning private copy machines, let alone content platforms. Political opposition to flawed, unfree regimes will survive under any conditions, with or without Silicon Valley help; but it has likely suffered a setback. That, and not the unsuccessful riot at the Capitol, is the lasting gift to Putin. He won’t fail to cash this check.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. His Russian translation of George Orwell’s “1984” is due out in early 2021.
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