The tool’s usage means that one “view” of the platform from a given country is different from the view from another. In other words, a Pakistani Twitter user is provided a sanitized version of Twitter, while an American one has access to—as far as we know—whatever content they desire. Corporate decisions around controversial speech, such as this one, all too often result in the creation of an “iron curtain” of sorts, dividing the seemingly borderless Internet.
The impact of corporate content regulation on local politics can be severe. The majority of popular social-media platforms belong to American companies, which means that their policies are at least inspired by United States law. In some cases, such as those involving copyright infringement or violent threats, platforms must comply with U.S. law. In others—such as when dealing with content from terrorist groups—the law is murky.
Facebook and other platforms appear to underpin their definition of “terrorism” with American law; specifically, by blocking the ability of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations to have a presence on their platforms. Though no company has been explicit about this, clues from media coverage suggest that Facebook is doing so out of a potential misinterpretation of so-called material support statutes that prevent American citizens (and companies) from providing “material support” to terrorist organizations.
In a diverse global environment, the old adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” carries some weight.
In several countries, groups that the U.S. designates as terrorists are legitimate political actors, active in local or national legislatures. In Lebanon, Hezbollah—which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States after its attack on Marines in the 1980s—functions as a political party, with members elected to parliament and serving in the cabinet.
Like al-Qaeda and ISIS, Hezbollah cannot easily having a presence on Facebook—it is banned by a set of corporate regulations that restrict use of the platform from “dangerous” organizations. Other Lebanese political parties can utilize the platform as they wish, including to campaign for elections. Though inadvertently, Facebook is, in a sense, preferencing these parties by banning their opponents. The implications of this for a country where several parties run candidates who are also accused of war crimes are myriad.
As people have come to increasingly rely on corporate social platforms for their daily dose of politics, humor, and social interaction, many often fail to notice the lack of neutrality with which these companies actually operate. Like the arbiters of speech that preceded them—governments, churches, and the like—companies are led by individuals who bring to the table their own world-views; in the case of Silicon Valley companies, that worldview is often American and male. A policy that allows for violent content but bans nudity, for example, follows in the tradition of American film and broadcast television regulations. In fact, while many treat online social spaces like the proverbial town square, they are actually more like shopping malls, privately owned and authorized to restrict content however they deem appropriate.