In 2016, Brazilian police arrested Diego Dzodan, Facebook’s then vice president for Latin America, after the company refused to hand over WhatsApp messages that authorities alleged had been sent by drug dealers. A judge later ordered Dzodan to be released, calling his arrest “unlawful coercion.”
Telecommunications and internet service providers have historically been susceptible to pressure from governments because they often have expensive infrastructure and staff on the ground. What happened to Dzodan in Brazil is less common, since global companies like Facebook tend to have fewer regional offices and local employees.
But now, in an effort to gain greater control over social media platforms, governments around the world are enacting laws requiring that tech platforms appoint in-country representatives and store user data locally. That can put individual representatives like Dzodan in the crosshairs of governments seeking to exert pressure on multinational platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Legislation requiring in-country representatives and local data storage already exists in Germany, where it was designed to address issues like hate speech. But experts say in countries that have a history of cracking down on internet freedoms, similar laws could be used to intimidate or threaten staff at social media companies. The regulations are already in place or are being considered in Brazil, Poland, India, Turkey, Vietnam, and Pakistan and could further erode free expression on the internet around the world.
Jason Pielemeier, policy director of the Global Network Initiative, an organization that promotes free expression online, has nicknamed the regulations “hostage-taking laws,” because they could be used to detain workers from social media platforms if they refuse to take government orders. “I think it’s less likely about threatening to shoot someone,” Pielemeier said. “It’s more about ‘We’re going to take their liberty away.’”
Governments have already used similar strategies to exert control over internet service providers. In January 2011, during the lead-up to the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government sent forces armed with machine guns to the offices of Mobinil, an ISP majority owned by the French telecom giant Orange. They had already pressured the company into shutting off the internet and wanted it to send out a message in support of then-president Hosni Mubarak to all its customers. Faced with threats to its staff, the company complied with the orders, but insisted the message be attributed to the military.
Now, similar tactics are being used against major platforms. In February, India became the latest nation to put in place a law addressing social media companies. The government announced new regulations requiring they each appoint a “grievance officer,” someone who officials can contact directly about posts they want removed. Beforehand, some social media companies were already wary about the safety of their employees in India. Weeks earlier, Twitter took down over 500 accounts that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, reportedly because it feared that staff in the country could be imprisoned otherwise.
Vietnam and Pakistan already have rules that mirror India’s on the books, while Brazil and Poland are currently considering their own versions. Most of the bills include or work in tandem with legislation mandating that social media companies store user information collected about their citizens locally. The rules could give governments greater control over how tech companies handle data and help prevent misuse. But under authoritarian regimes, the laws could also be used to conduct surveillance and erode privacy.
Pielemeier said he worries that, if the laws prove to be successful, other countries with undemocratic leaders will continue to follow suit. “It sends a signal to people in other countries: governments and officials that realize ‘OK, you know, maybe we can do the same thing,’” he said.
When social media laws go into effect, tech companies often respond in different ways, according to their own business interests. Digital rights activists say that can make it harder to organize against the policies. “[The companies] are not acting together. That’s another problem,” said Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish lawyer and digital rights activist. “They’re not talking to each other, and they see each other as competitors.”
Last summer, Turkey passed a sweeping law that mandates large social media platforms open local offices, which are tasked with answering content takedown requests in 48 hours. Between October and January, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok all eventually said they would comply with the legislation, after the government slapped them with fines and, more critically, threatened to cut them off from the Turkish advertising market. Twitter didn’t announce it would open a legal entity in the country until March, after the government imposed fines, cut off its local advertising revenue, and throttled its service.
Representatives from Facebook and Twitter both pointed Rest of World to public statements about their plans to set up legal entities in Turkey, and would offer no further comment about whether they had local staff in the country.
Akdeniz said that YouTube and TikTok have established shell companies in Turkey with board members, based outside the country, who will act as their Turkish representatives. He suspects that other companies may use similar setups to protect their employees, who are likely to be hesitant or unwilling to work on the ground.
“It would be impossible for anyone to accept such a job because there will be threats if they decide not to comply with the [government’s] decisions,” said Akdeniz. “That person’s life might be in danger, or that person, or persons, might be facing criminal investigations and prosecutions, or the company office might be raided.” (YouTube and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.)
Turkish lawmakers helped justify the law by pointing to similar regulations in Germany, though Akdeniz believes the country is really taking cues from Russia, which recently throttled Twitter following massive protests. First passed in 2017, Germany’s notorious Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG) compels social media companies to swiftly remove illegal content or face exorbitant fines. Like many of the laws currently being considered, it also requires that social media platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany appoint a local German representative. “To convince people in countries like Turkey, it’s always better to say, ‘We are only doing what Germany’s doing,’” said Akdeniz.
Over the past few years, a number of countries have used NetzDG as inspiration for their own efforts to curb online freedoms, according to a report from the human rights think tank Justitia. “In a global free speech race to the bottom, the NetzDG matrix has been copy-pasted by authoritarian states to provide cover and legitimacy for digital censorship and repression,” wrote Jacob Mchangama, the founder of Justitia and a co-author of the report.
Vietnam is another country that has borrowed a page from NetzDG. But Vu Quoc Ngu, director of the Vietnamese human rights nonprofit Defend the Defenders, said that China’s heavily censored internet likely served as the government’s true inspiration. The country’s 2018 cybersecurity law requires social media firms open offices in the country and that Vietnamese users’ data be housed domestically.
So far, companies like Facebook have yet to set up shop in Vietnam, but other components of the legislation have been used to stifle free speech. In 2019, for instance, the government accused Facebook of violating the regulations by allowing users to share anti-government posts.
Ngu said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that authorities might attempt to threaten local workers from tech companies in the future. “In Vietnam, everything is possible,” he said. “They do whatever they want.”
Pielemeier said he acknowledges that the rise of these laws has put social media companies in an impossible position. “They could take a principled stand,” he said, and refuse to take down posts or hand over data, but that might prompt governments to block their platforms altogether. “What would that mean on the ground for people in Vietnam, people who depend on Facebook to get and share information that the government otherwise will not allow people to have access to?”