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Asia dilemma: social networks pressed by Turkey and Vietnam to censor critics

YouTube and Facebook weigh reputation damage of bowing to repressive governments

Human rights activist Le Van Dun, right, livestreams on Facebook in a coffee shop in Hanoi.   © Reuters

ISTANBUL -- Turkey, Vietnam and other emerging Asian countries have ramped up pressure on social media platforms to restrict critical content, with some degree of success.

Google-owned streaming service YouTube said in December that it will set up an office in Turkey, following legislation passed here in July that requires major social media companies to appoint a local representative. This is seen as a way to give teeth to requests to take down posts that authorities deem inappropriate.

Such demands force social media companies to make difficult choices between either allowing censorship on their platforms, with the bad publicity that entails in the West, or else facing serious consequences for their business in big emerging markets.

Companies that fail to comply with Turkey's new law, for example, will be hit with escalating consequences through May, including advertising bans and bandwidth cuts of up to 90%. Before YouTube's move, only Russia's VKontakte had designated a local representative, while other companies -- including YouTube -- had each been fined a total of 40 million lira ($5.2 million).

YouTube's decision "sets a dangerous precedent that makes it harder for other tech companies to refuse to appoint a local representative in Turkey" or in other countries that may impose similar requirements, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government will slash bandwidth for social networks that fail to comply with new regulations.   © AP

Turkish authorities keep a tight rein on most media, and social media networks are among the few outlets where criticism of the government is allowed. Yet even these platforms are at risk. Turkey has blocked access to roughly 500,000 sites, according to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Vietnam is turning up pressure on social media as well. Hanoi recently warned Facebook that its service would be shut down in the country if the company did not agree to tighten content restrictions. Facebook had acceded to a similar demand in April to censor more "anti-state" posts, but the government is now seeking tougher measures.

As anti-government demonstrations swept through Thailand in October, authorities responded by asking Thailand's Criminal Court to block the Facebook page of a protest group, as well as news media that posted footage from the protests on the platform. The court ordered the shutdown of one outlet's online presence, though it later reversed the decision.

The government also declared a "severe" state of emergency in Bangkok, barring the dissemination of information that could "create fear."

In August, authorities demanded that Facebook take down a page run by an organization critical of the Thai royal family. The company blocked access to the page in Thailand while issuing a statement saying it had been compelled to do so.

In the Philippines, Facebook in late September shut down 64 fake accounts linked to the military and police that had criticized political opposition and human rights groups. President Rodrigo Duterte blasted the move in an online news conference that month.

"Facebook, listen to me: We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us," he said. "If government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country?"

Russia has also been increasing its control over the internet, ostensibly to prevent the spread of extremism. It passed a new law last year banning fake news. Lawmakers also presented a draft legislation to parliament in November that would allow the government to restrict access to U.S. social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that take down posts from Russian state media.

The rights of Russian users have been violated by these platforms, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in defense of the draft legislation.

Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook, raised alarms over such developments at the virtual Web Summit conference this month.

Clegg said that China has built its own internet "based on a completely different set of values," with heavy surveillance and without the necessary checks and balances on data protection and privacy. He added that countries like Turkey, Vietnam and Russia are all emulating this "more insular approach."

Big U.S. platforms like Facebook and Twitter are eager to maintain a foothold in these markets, especially after being pushed out of mainland China. But they also risk harming their global reputation if they bow to authoritarian demands.

Amnesty International in December slammed Facebook and Google for allowing the Vietnamese authorities to use them as a tool for censorship and harassment. The Freedom on the Net report, which studies 65 countries worldwide and is published every year by Freedom House, has found decline in online freedoms every year for the last decade.

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