Russian censorship story highlights Facebook’s dilemma

Widespread reports that Facebook-owned Instagram has blocked posts from a political opponent of the government have brought the social media censorship issue to the fore once more.

The BBC is among the media to report on the matter, stating that Russia’s internet censor has demanded that social media companies restrict access to posts connected to corruption claims made by Alexey Navalny. Apparently YouTube received a similar request but has yet to act on it.

Navalny seems to be a fairly avid YouTuber, and the specific video flagged up in the BBC report was uploaded on 8 February and is still live, having clocked over 5 million views. Navalny took to Twitter to denounce the Instagram move and it’s generating a lot of difficult publicity for Facebook at a time when it could really do without it.

“When governments believe that something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content,” a Facebook spokeswoman told the Beeb. “We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory. We are transparent about any content restrictions we make for government requests with local law in our Transparency Report.”

Here we have the dilemma faced by all social media companies: who are they to second-guess the will of individual governments? The prevailing western narrative is to by sympathetic to Navalny and hostile to Putin – and it’s easy to believe political opposition is stifled in Russia – but we can’t possibly make an authoritative call on the veracity of Navalny’s claims, nor should we be asked to.

So while Facebook’s position on this matter appears to be kowtowing to political oppression, it’s also the will of the state apparatus in the country it’s operating. What if, on another occasion, Facebook declined such a request and it led to some unforeseen negative outcome? This is why it’s a mistake to make private companies the first point of law enforcement.

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