The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden must stand up for U.S. social media sites abroad

A Facebook panel at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, in Cannes, France, in 2018.
A Facebook panel at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, in Cannes, France, in 2018. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

CENSORING THE Internet isn’t easy, even for the most technologically savvy of authoritarian governments. That’s why many states are asking the U.S. companies that run the world’s most prominent platforms to help them shut down free expression.

With every week comes another story of a demand made by authorities that a firm quell its users’ speech — and dispiritingly, sometimes these stories end with the firm complying. The latest tales span the globe. They begin, however, in the least surprising place. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn is the only major American social network allowed to operate in China at all, but there’s no chance of doing so without interference: Earlier this month, according to the New York Times, President Xi Jinping’s regime punished the site’s executives for failing to remove “objectionable” political posts, suspending new sign-ups inside the country for 30 days and mandating a self-evaluation reported to authorities.

These overreaches aren’t surprising in China. What’s alarming is how many other nations are creeping ever closer to similar demands that companies censor in lockstep with the ruling party line. Russia is threatening to block Twitter, purportedly for hosting illegal content such as child pornography and calls for minors to commit suicide. Critics believe this is a pretext for coercing the company to delete content supporting imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Officials already slowed the service as a warning; the shot against the bow momentarily missed its target when the Kremlin also hobbled its own websites.

ProPublica reported last month on the Turkish government’s 2018 request that Facebook prevent users within the country’s borders from viewing the page for the People’s Protection Units or YPG, a mostly Kurdish militia group in Syria that Turkey was targeting at the time as part of a broader offensive against the minority. The aim of the censorship request, it appears, was to restrict information about the campaign and accompanying abuses. Now Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is rightly asking questions. Facebook defended its compliance by saying it does its best to follow the laws of the nations in which it operates, though it will never violate its international human rights commitments. The alternative to acquiescence would be to risk shutdown, and along with it the shutting out of millions of Turkish citizens. Companies will likely undertake the same calculus as India’s draconian new Internet regulations come into fuller effect.

The tradeoff is real, and President Biden can help. Firms today often face a dilemma: impinge on speech by following repressive laws, or impinge on speech by withdrawing from nations with repressive laws. Neither is palatable, though the first way at least allows the companies to preserve valuable markets and guard against competitors stepping in. There’s an opportunity today for the United States and other democracies to push for a third way, where countries that reap the fruits of a connected Internet are encouraged to respect civil liberties, and held to account when they try to bully businesses into doing the opposite.

Read more:

Richard Glover: Australia is standing up to Facebook and Big Tech. It shouldn’t fight alone.

Samantha Power: Two things Facebook still needs to do to reduce the spread of misinformation

Masih Alinejad: Why Twitter should ban Iran’s supreme leader

The Post’s View: Facebook and Twitter can do something about deceptive news. So why don’t they?

Max Boot: Sorry, Republicans. Social media companies aren’t obligated to spread your lies.