From Facebook to Google, Baidu to VKontakte, the world's biggest technology companies talk about their singular dedication to their users. Yet the road to becoming a global tech titan is inevitably lined with hard choices and conflicts of interest. Here are five prominent controversies where companies are accused of ceding to questionable demands of the government.
CHINA: BAIDU IN BED
The more than 600 million Internet users in China exercise their online freedom with serious limitations. While growing into the leading Chinese search engine, Baidu has acted as a continuous enforcer of the governmentâ€™s policies, including regularly blocking data with sensitive content. For instance you won't get far if you type in the terms â€œJune Fourthâ€ (å…å››), a reference to the June 4, 1989 massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Baidu censors every reference to the date, and mentions at the top of the page that â€œaccording to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not displayedâ€.
Similarly, the same sentence appears when you are looking for the words â€œCommunist Banditsâ€ (å…±åŒª), and â€œTragic Communist Partyâ€ (å…±æƒ¨å…š). Baidu is the fifth most seen website in the world after Google, Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo!
MOROCCO: GOOGLE MAPS FOR A MONARCH
Google Maps is huge. Last summer, the new version of its application was downloaded more than one billion times on Android. It is in very plain terms how much of us see the world. But with this power comes responsibility.
In November, Morocco will celebrate 40 years since the Green March, which was a mass government-led demonstration to compel Spain to hand the Western Sahara over to Morocco. But this territory, which is bordered by three countries (Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania) and was occupied by Spain in the 19th century, continues to be disputed territory. Thus, on its website, Google Maps showed the boundary of this disputed zone by a dotted line.
Many Moroccan users disliked this outline and voiced it strongly, as Moroccan King Mohammed VI declared that the territory would always belong to the monarchy. In the face of the growing controversy, Google eventually deleted the dotted line â€" but only if you're viewing it in Morocco. It must be the latest version of the U.S. search giant's slogan: Don't be evil.
RUSSIA: VKONTAKTE PUT-IN PLACE
Vladimir Putinâ€™s Kremlin has a close eye on all that circulates, on and off line. VKontakte (VK), Russia's most popular social network boasts twice as many users in that country as Facebook. While Mark Zuckerbergâ€™s company risked last month getting blocked in Russia if it continued not to respect the countryâ€™s internet laws, VK had been more obedient since its founder was forced out of Russiaâ€¦
Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who was born in 1984, launched his social networking site in September 2006, and was eventually used as a way to organize anti-Putin demonstrations â€" and Durov quickly faced pressures from Moscow. In 2011, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) showed up at his apartment with guns drawn after he'd refused to take down the political protesters' VKontakte pages. On April 21, 2014, Durov was forced out of the company after having refused to give to the FSB personal data on users implicated in anti-government protests in Ukraine.
Today, VK is according to Durov himself, â€œunder the complete controlâ€ of two close collaborators of the Russian President: CEO of Mail.ru Alisher Usmanov and â€œRussia's second-most powerful personâ€ after Putin, Igor Sechin. Online magazine Motherboard reported that since Durovâ€™s removal, the social network is no longer a place of â€œpolitical activismâ€. Government opponents are using Facebook instead.
TURKEY: FACEBOOK'S CONTRADICTIONS
Facebook, with its 1.44 billion active users per month, is the epitome of social media power and influence. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to declare the website is guided only by its free will. And yet, some countries manage to force Facebook to obey local laws even if they seem to contradict the Facebook way.
In Turkey, last January, the BBC noticed some Facebook pages depicting the Prophet Muhammad were blocked by the website on religious grounds. Indeed the social media had received a Turkish court order demanding that Facebook either censor the pages or the company would be banned from the country, where an estimated 40 million people are registered with the site. Facebook chose to comply with the order.
Zuckerberg explained at a conference in Bogotá that Facebook did its best for the users around the world â€œto express as much as possible,â€ but many obstacles stood in the way. His aim was to fight for freedom of expression but breaking local laws was not the method to achieve it. â€œIt will only block the service entirely. Which means millions of people will be deprived of the tools they were using to communicate with their friends and express as much as possibleâ€.
UNITED STATES: CISCO SYSTEMS GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE
The rivalry between China and the United States includes plenty of collateral damage in cyber security. Recently, it was the turn of U.S. technology giant Cisco Systems to bear the weight of this struggle.
The firm that sells networking equipment around the world was criticized in May 2014 by the China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China for being complicit with the American government, â€œexploiting its market advantage in the Chinese information networks, playing a disgraceful role and becoming an important weapon in the U.S. exploiting its power over the Internetâ€.
As a result Cisco was removed from a list of brands that are approved for Chinese purchases. This boycott could hurt the company, as about 15% of its revenue comes from Asia.
Chinaâ€™s mistrust toward Cisco can also be explained by Edward Snowdenâ€™s revelations. The former US intelligence operative disclosed, among other things, that the National Security Agency (NSA) regularly intercepted and bugged Cisco routers before sending them to target adversaries.
Cisco spokesman John Earnhardt answered in a statement brought out on May, 28 that his company â€œdid not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitationâ€.
A Cisco server â€" Photo: Bob Mical
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
- Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid ... ›
- French Monarchist Lessons For A Broken American Democracy ... ›
- Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters ... ›