The last week or two has brought a whole slew of bad news for people who support freedom of speech and association, both online and offline, including free, unfettered access to social media. By now it’s pretty clear that authoritarian regimes around the world have social media squarely in their sights, and while they may allow their citizens to continue to use social media, they will only be able to do so under tight controls intended to quash online dissent and organization. And of course, in a nice post-modern touch the repressive measures are all being justified on the grounds of public safety: in other words, “we’re spying on you, harassing you and locking you up because it’s for your own good!”
The first piece of bad news comes from Egypt, where the interior ministry is enlisting foreign firms to help it monitor social media sites, according to Reuters, in part by alerting authorities whenever certain key words are used. The Egyptian government claims the measures are intended to help stop crime and combat terrorism, but Reuters bluntly identifies the plan as “another sign that the government intends to stifle all forms of dissent.” Egypt’s military government – which toppled the Muslim Brotherhood with support from a large segment of the Egyptian population last year – has already locked up bloggers who criticize the regime, and presumably that policy isn’t going to change under newly elected president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former defense minister with close ties to the army.
Meanwhile China, which has already introduced draconian laws to deter online dissent, is now cracking down on smartphone-based messaging services in order to combat “rumors” and “infiltration of hostile forces at home and abroad” accord to the official Xinhua News Agency. The crackdown is specifically targeting social media users of microblog and chat platforms including WeChat and Tencent, who use the platforms to spread rumors and “information related to violence, terrorism and pornography.”
The repeated emphasis on combatting “rumors” would seem to justify, for example, prosecuting someone who says “I heard such-and-such official is corrupt,” and according to news reports WeChat has been forced to take down accounts that referred to “political, economic, and legal issues” -- no mention of violence, terrorism, or pornography there.
Earlier this year the Chinese government created an Internet security group led by President XI Jinping himself, a clear indication of how seriously the powers that be take these threats. And the reference to “hostile forces… abroad” is a strong hint that security officials believe foreign governments (e.g., the U.S.) are trying to use social media to stir up trouble in China.
Back in the Middle East Saudi Arabian authorities are threatening to take legal and regulatory action against social networks, including Twitter, that allow accounts which “promote adultery, homosexuality, and atheism,” according to reports in the Saudi press published over the weekend. According to one member of the Shoura Council, charged with maintaining strict moral standards in the kingdom, there are 4,500 Twitter accounts actively promoting atheism in an organized attempt to undermine Saudi society. Dr. Fayez al-Shehri was quoted by the Al-Hayat daily as saying “This is a cultural war.” It wasn’t clear from these reports precisely which malign forces are behind the atheistic Twitter accounts, but Saudi Arabia’s crack morality police are presumably on the case.
Last and perhaps most worrying, Thailand is joining Turkey in the ranks of once-promising democracies that are taking a wrong turn, in part by cracking down on free expression online. After the recent coup by the Thai military, top officers called in representatives from major Internet service providers to let them know the military is monitoring social media and messaging apps to ensure they aren’t used to organize anti-military demonstrations. On a positive note, Facebook and Google refused to send representatives to the meeting, but if the ISPs and mobile providers cooperate (which seems like a foregone conclusion) the military can effectively control the online platforms anyway: indeed, a military spokesman is already blocking some accounts on Line, a popular messaging app based in Japan.