Corporate Accountability News Highlights: Tech companies combat white supremacist content, Chinese companies face investigation over user content, and web host pushes back on Trump administration demand for website visitor info

Corporate Accountability News Highlights is a regular series by Ranking Digital Rights highlighting key news related to tech companies, freedom of expression, and privacy issues around the world.

Tech companies combat white supremacist content

Image by Mark Dixon (Licensed CC BY 2.0)

Leading tech companies are  making new efforts to restrict white supremacist content, following the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12. Several companies terminated services for the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, after it posted an article disparaging Heather Heyer, a counter demonstrator who was killed during the rally on August 12. GoDaddy, a domain name registrar, terminated its service for the Daily Stormer, stating, “this type of article could incite additional violence, which violates our terms of service.” The Daily Stormer then moved its domain name registry to Google Domains, which also cancelled its service, citing a violation to its terms of service. Zoho, the website’s email provider, also cancelled its service due to a terms of service violation. Following the rally, Twitter also suspended the Daily Stormer’s account, and Facebook removed several pages affiliated with white supremacist groups.

Notably, Cloudflare, a content distribution network company that had previously publicly defended its decision to provide services to the Daily Stormer, also dropped the site. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince told the Verge, “This was my decision, I don’t think it’s CloudFlare’s policy and I think it’s an extremely dangerous decision in a lot of ways. I think that we as the internet need to have a conversation about where the right place for content restriction is…but there was no way we could have that conversation until we resolved this particular issue.”

Internet and social media companies have come under increasing pressure to do a better job policing extremist content. However, in doing so, it is important that these companies have clear guidelines, policies, and accountability mechanisms to ensure they do not censor legitimate free speech. Companies’ terms of service or user agreements, which outline what content and activities are not permitted, are also not always transparent or consistently enforced, making it difficult to determine what impact this may have on users’ freedom of expression rights. Only three of the 22 companies evaluated in the 2017 Corporate Accountability IndexGoogle, Microsoft, and Twitter—disclosed any data about the volume and nature of content they restricted for breaches to terms of service. Companies should clearly disclose the circumstances under which they may restrict content or user accounts, publish data about the volume and nature of actions they take to enforce these rules, and provide clear grievance and remedy mechanisms to address users’ concerns over violations to their freedom of expression rights as a result of actions taken by the company.

Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo under Chinese government investigation

The Chinese government’s internet watchdog unit is investigating Chinese internet companies Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo for circulating content “disruptive to the social order,” according to Bloomberg. The measure comes as part of the government’s ongoing clamp down on the internet in advance of the 19th Communist Party Congress this fall. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the government had asked Apple to remove several Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from its App Store.

As we noted in the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, Chinese companies face legal and regulatory obstacles that prevent them from adequately respecting their users’ rights to freedom of expression. Chinese companies are held liable if forbidden content is published on or transmitted through their services, and those that do not sufficiently police the content they host may be blocked from being accessed within China. Of the two Chinese companies we evaluated, Tencent and Baidu, Tencent disclosed much more information than Baidu about its policies affecting user’s freedom of expression and privacy rights. Both companies disclosed more information about their privacy-related policies than those affecting users’ freedom of expression. Out of the 12 internet and mobile companies we evaluated, Tencent and Baidu scored the lowest overall on freedom of expression policy disclosures.

Web host fights U.S. government demand for records on anti-Trump website visitors

Web hosting provider Dreamhost is pushing back on a demand by the U.S. Department of Justice to hand over 1.3 million IP addresses of visitors to an anti-Trump website. The company revealed this week that it has been engaged in a legal dispute with the Justice Department, after the company was served with a warrant demanding it disclose visitor IP addresses as well as “contact information, email content, and photos” from disruptj20.org, which has helped organize demonstrations against the Trump administration. Dreamhost referred to the warrant as a “highly untargeted demand that chills free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution.” The company has filed a legal response opposing the warrant and a hearing on the matter is scheduled for August 18.

In April of this year, Twitter reported that the Trump administration had attempted to force the company to reveal the identity of an anonymous Twitter account critiquing the administration. Twitter pushed back against the request, which was ultimately withdrawn, saying it was unlawful and a violation of the First Amendment.

The Corporate Accountability Index methodology looks for companies to disclose their processes for responding to government and other third party requests for user data. This includes making a commitment to carry out due diligence on third party requests for user information before deciding how to respond, as well as a commitment to push back on inappropriate or overbroad requests. Of the seven U.S. companies evaluated in the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index—Apple, AT&T, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo— all seven committed to carry out due diligence on government requests for user information and to push back on inappropriate or overbroad requests.

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