What Does it Cost to Increase Users? Some Free Speech.

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William Hook/Unsplash

The meteoric increase of social media users worldwide has helped stoke tensions between major technology platforms and governments. These tensions are particularly pronounced in emerging markets where many governments are tackling challenges like fake news and cybersecurity threats by curbing free speech and internet access—principles that most major technology companies tout as integral to their brand. But when enticed by the possibility of gaining market share, companies have tended to let these principles fall to the wayside. Now, in countries like India and China, which house a significant and growing number of platform users, the world of big tech is engaged in a complex balancing act between principles and profits.

The Lure of Emerging Markets

Emerging markets are a key part of any global technology company’s financial success. While the number of social media and smartphone users in developed markets like the United States and Australia has plateaued in recent years, the number of users in emerging markets has continued to climb. According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of adults in emerging nations who reported using social media grew from 34 percent in 2013-14 to 53 percent in 2017-18. Although internet access remains a significant barrier in India, Indonesia, and nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, Google and Facebook have launched efforts such as Project Loon and Internet.org to facilitate connectivity, thereby driving adoption of their services.

But adapting these platforms in different national contexts is easier said than done, with many governments demanding that platforms operate in line with their own social and political agendas. This poses a significant challenge for tech companies promoting themselves as champions of values like free speech and privacy.

Exchanging Internet Freedom for Market Share

Google’s relationship with the Government of China is a strong example of this increasingly complex battle. In 2010, Google exited the country following immense criticism of its compliance with the Chinese government’s expanding demands to crackdown on free speech and human rights. In August, however, The Intercept leaked documents revealing the tech behemoth’s now defunct plans to re-establish its search engine operations in China by early 2019 under the project name Dragonfly. This new search engine would have filtered content related to “sensitive topics” flagged by the Chinese government, such as democracy and human rights, as well as restrict access to websites, including the BBC and Wikipedia.

Google has now halted Project Dragonfly as a result of tremendous pressure from civil society organizations, lawmakers, the public and Google employees, but the financial incentive for the proposed policy change was clear: China recently surpassed 800 million internet users, making it the world’s biggest market for tech companies, larger than the United States and India combined. Any attempt to re-enter this market would alarm digital and free speech advocates, as it would put the company on the direct path to internet censorship and show that its so-called fundamental values have a price.

The Battle Against Fake News

Government pressure on technology companies to institute controversial practices is also mounting in India—home to WhatsApp’s largest user base at 200 million. Although tech platforms have been an integral part of public engagement for both the government and citizens, they have also spurred a serious fake news epidemic, which has yielded particularly disastrous consequences across the country. Since January 2017, fake news rumors about child abductions across the country resulted in a series of mob attacks against alleged perpetrators, which killed 33 people and injured 99. Approximately 77 percent of these cases were fueled by misinformation on social media, with WhatsApp as the leading source of the rumors.

This has prompted the Indian government to pressure tech companies to mitigate the challenge of fake news by blocking content and permitting location tracking. However, these requests directly challenge some of WhatsApp’s key features, such as encrypted messaging.

In response to these incidents and pressure to act, Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company, has blocked access to 499 URLs associated with fake news since the start of 2018 and has established partnerships with organizations skilled in identifying and fact-checking local news stories. And instead of responding to the government’s demands to influence content and permit location tracking, WhatsApp introduced technical fixes to prevent the mass forwarding of messages.

Despite these efforts, the Indian government remains unsatisfied. In July, India’s Department of Telecommunications issued a letter to telecom service providers and mobile and internet industry bodies asking for a way to block messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram should they be misused. If India’s request is met, these major tech platforms will be forced to choose between profits and principles, deciding whether to retain access to increasingly lucrative markets or stand by their pricey moral codes.

Even as major technology platforms continue to become entangled in controversy—from data breaches to political subversion—their drive to grow their user base continues unabated, particularly in emerging markets. And in countries where values like freedom of speech and privacy are not strongly respected or enforced, these platforms are tempted to strike deals with repressive regimes who hold the keys to market value: more users. If this trend continues, users will be the ultimate losers.


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