Iran restricts internet access, Tencent denies collecting messaging chats, Germany cracks down on offensive speech

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.

Iran restricts internet access

Photo yeowatzup on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Iranian government has blocked multiple social media and messaging apps in an attempt to disrupt protests that have grown and spread throughout the country over the past week, according to multiple news outlets. Iranians have reported being unable to access services including social network Instagram and the messaging app Telegram. The protests are said to be the largest anti-government demonstrations in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations.

Iran has one of the most complex internet censorship regimes in the world, which involves blocking and filtering websites, surveillance, and targeting citizens and activists for political speech. Internet users in recent days are reporting difficulties reaching previously-accessible foreign websites and services, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Although there have been no reports of a nationwide internet shutdown, The New York Times reports that “internet access has been sporadically cut off” in several cities where large protests have taken place.

Shutting down networks and restricting access to online communications violate human rights, and can also risk the safety of citizens. A 2015 declaration from a joint declaration by intergovernmental organizations states that “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems)…can never be justified under human rights law.” Authorities should commit to protect human rights principles and refrain from ordering network shutdowns, acknowledging that network shutdowns can pose a threat to public safety and have significantly detrimental economic effects. Telecommunications companies should also disclose information about how they handle government network shutdown demands, including under whose authority a shutdown is ordered, so that those responsible can be held accountable. None of the telecommunications companies evaluated in the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index disclosed sufficient information about how they handle government network shutdown demands.

Tencent denies collecting messaging chats

Tencent has issued a statement denying reports that its messaging app WeChat stores users’ chat histories. The company’s statement came in response to news reports quoting a prominent businessman who claimed that Tencent Chairman Ma Huateng is likely watching peoples’ WeChat conversations. In response, the company said it “does not store any users’ chat history. That is only stored in users’ mobiles, computers and other terminals.” However, the online news site Quartz called that statement “misleading” since a 2017 China’s Cybersecurity Law requires internet companies to store relevant user data and internet logs for six months. Reuters also reports that WeChat’s privacy policy says it may need to retain and disclose users’ information “in response to a request by a government authority, law enforcement agency or similar body.”

Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies should clearly disclose to users what information they store and for how long they retain it. Research from the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index found that while Tencent disclosed that it may be required to retain or disclose personal information in response to requests from authorities, the company did not disclose any information about how long it retains user information. It was one of three of 12 internet and mobile companies evaluated—including the Chinese internet company Baidu and the Russian internet company Yandex—that did not disclose any information about its user data retention policies.

Germany cracks down on offensive speech

On January 1, Germany began enforcing its controversial “NetzDG” law, requiring social media platforms to remove offensive content within a week, or in some cases, within 24 hours. The  law was passed in June 2017 and companies were given a several-month grace period to install new systems in order to comply. Companies face fines of up to €50 million if they do not remove  “obviously illegal” content, including incitement to violence and hate speech, within 24 hours. For more complex cases, companies have seven days to decide whether or not to remove the content. In one of the first documented cases of the law’s enforcement, Twitter deleted an anti-Muslim tweet from an account belonging to Beatrix von Storch, a far-right politician. Reuters reports that a German satirical magazine was then blocked for parodying von Storch’s tweets. The Association of German Journalists criticized Twitter blocking the magazine’s account and called on Parliament to reverse the NetzDG law.

Some civil society groups warn that the law threatens freedom of expression, and forces companies, not courts, to make decisions about what is hate speech. Critics also say the law could encourage companies to over-censor content. In light of these risks, it is essential that companies be transparent about their content removal policies, including how offensive content on their platforms is identified and flagged, and for companies to publish data on the volume and nature of content and accounts they restrict or delete, and why. Research from the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index found that companies are not transparent about how they respond when governments and other third parties ask them to block, delete, or otherwise restrict content or users’ accounts, and disclose even less about such restrictions on content that violates the company’s own rules. Of the 22 internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies evaluated in the Index, only nine published any data about government requests to restrict content or accounts. By contrast, only three companies—Google, Microsoft, and Twitterpublished any data about the volume and nature of content and accounts that were restricted or removed for violating the companies’ own rules.

Leave a Reply