Internet giants Google, Facebook and Twitter are facing a global campaign to ensure rights of all people are protected beyond US borders where they originated.
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, some 28 civil rights organisations from Africa and other parts of the world challenged the big three internet firms to use the same measure of protection witnessed recently after protesters stormed the US Capitol.
The organisations, including Access Now, Alliances for Africa, Tanzania’s Centre for Strategic Litigation, National Election Watch Sierra Leone (NEWSL) and Global Witness among others, said the tech companies must protect everyone in areas they serve.
“Today, we are demanding that Facebook, Google and Twitter urgently demonstrate the concern they have claimed toward democratic processes in the United States to the remaining 96 percent of humanity,” the organisations said.
“Immediate action is needed to avoid further aiding and abetting harm to democracy and human rights around the world.”
The three tech firms firmly responded to the January 6 violent protests in Washington after President Donald Trump supporters attempted to disrupt proceedings meant to approve the victory of his successor Joe Biden.
The tech giants shut down accounts seen to have livestreamed the violence, blocked Trump’s own accounts for incitement and continually challenged false propositions on election results.
While states and their authorities retain obligation to uphold human rights, the civil rights groups say the increasing role of internet companies as platforms affect those civil liberties.
They want the companies to hire local experts capable of discerning local contexts of hate speech and other infringements. They want improved moderations, especially during elections or conflict.
The firms should work with third-party fact checkers with local contextual knowledge to provide corrections to all users who have seen or interacted with verifiably false or misleading information, the groups said.
They criticised the tech companies for lacking consistency around the world. For example, in Tanzania where opposition politicians claimed harassment, there was little action on the perceived perpetrators.
Last week, Facebook caused controversy after it removed some accounts linked to the Presidency in Uganda over claims they published false information concerning the political campaigns in the country. Uganda responded by shutting down internet services for five days. Authorities in Kampala have since continued to put under house arrest opposition leader Bobi Wine, while other rights activists are detained or remain in hiding.
Neither Facebook, Twitter nor Google responded to claims of harassment and trolling by government operatives on opposition leaders in Tanzania during its October 28, 2020 elections. After the polls were won overwhelmingly by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), opposition leader Tundu Lissu fled the country citing threats on his life. Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on unnamed Tanzanian officials for subverting a democratic process and elections, just a day before he left power.
“These companies continue to make ad hoc decisions that have a dramatic impact on democracy - on the one hand deplatforming (restraining) Donald Trump while at the same time amplifying hateful content around the world and silencing voices critical of oppressive government,” the civil rights organisations said.
“Yet the decision-makers at these corporations are democratically unaccountable and alarmingly selective in the arenas they care about.”
The three firms have argued they are continually fighting hate speech, incitement and false information. But their lack of physical presence or knowledge of local contexts often mean the interpretation and penalties may differ.
On Trump, they let him purvey inaccuracies for most of his term, only restricting him during the US elections last November.
The statement by the civil rights organisations was also endorsed by rights groups campaigning for democracy, freedom of speech, access to justice and right to privacy in diverse environments from Tanzania to Iraq, Syria, US, UK and Czech Republic.
They include Avaaz, Carnegie UK Trust Centenary Action Group, Centre for Countering Digital Hate, Clean Up the Internet, Democratic Integrity, Electronic Frontier Foundation, EU Disinfo Lab, Fair Vote UK, Glitch, Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, and Human Rights Without Frontiers Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Others are the Iraqi Network for Social Media, The Jo Cox Foundation, Masaar - Technology and Law Community, Mnemonic, NELEŽ, SMEX, SNV, SumOfUs, Tandem Research and The Open Bar Initiative.
They challenged the tech firms to halt the harassment of human rights defenders, threats to freedom of speech, the incitement of religious violence, and misinformation and disinformation spread on their platforms in other parts of the world.
“The lives and societies of people in the rest of the world, especially the Global South, are worth no less than those in the United States.
“A knee-jerk response for a few select markets might be easier and cheaper for the companies, but not appropriate for defending democracy and human rights.”