Corporations, like nation states, act out of self-interest. So it pays to be suspicious when a company claims to be on the side of social progress. Markets, with their inherent sociopathy, just don’t value things like justice and equity (well, not that kind of equity)—unless, of course, they can be converted into good PR.
Just recently here in our land of market fundamentalism, corporations are having something of a social justice moment. Last week, as Indiana passed its so-called “religious freedom law,” some of the largest U.S.-based multinationals, including many from Silicon Valley, raced each other to the microphone to criticize the law.
Salesforce, Yelp, Twitter, eBay, and everyone’s favorite food bank-for-its-own-employees, Walmart, joined a growing movement to boycott the state—a worthwhile gesture, sure, but also a cravenly self-interested one, an easy win for companies with otherwise blemished records.
But the problem with posing as a solid corporate citizen, a company out to finally make good on “changing the world,” is that the act must be maintained. Now a few of those same tech companies, fresh off l’affaire Indiana, find themselves already losing face—this time over freedom of expression—as they bend to government censors in Turkey.
Last Tuesday, two left-wing militants took a Turkish prosecutor hostage at a courthouse in Istanbul. The militants released dramatic photos of the prosecutor being held with a gun to his head, Soviet flags hanging in the background. The prosecutor, along with two militants, died hours later in a raid staged by Turkish special forces. As social media users and newspapers began to publish the photos, a judge responded by ordering that 168 websites should be blocked, including news sites, Twitter, and YouTube.
Twitter was blocked in Turkey for several hours on Monday, but was restored the same day, reportedly because it had agreed to scrub the photos from its service. Google later did the same. Facebook, quickest in removing material related to the prosecutor, was never blocked.
Like many authoritarian democracies, Turkey responds to changing conditions by turning the dial of repression up and down accordingly, particularly when it comes to Internet access. (China, for instance, has long tolerated VPNs, which can be used to access blocked websites, but in recent months the new Xi Jingping-led government has cracked down on them.) Turkey’s government claims that the images of the prosecutor glorify terrorism and aggrieve his family, but some see Monday’s Twitter shutdown, and the wider campaign of censorship of which it is part, as a preemptive warning shot meant to scare off dissidents in advance of Turkey’s general elections in June. And not without reason. In another incident last week, Yaşar Elma, a newspaper journalist, was imprisoned for liking a Facebook post critical of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president.
Five years ago, Google effectively shut down its search page in China, citing censorship and cyber attacks driven by the Chinese government. But in Turkey, increasingly repressive under Erdogan, it seems that Google and its peers would rather submit to the government’s dictates than pull out of a country where their products are in demand.
Though less than half of Turks have Internet access, social media is popular among those who do, and it has been widely used as a protest tool. Such potential seems to terrify Erdogan, whose more sedate outbursts include describing Twitter as “the worst menace to society.”
The tech companies may justify their cooperation with censorship by saying that they are complying with local law. They must do so, they say, in order to do business in certain countries. This in itself is hardly surprising. Corporations bow to illiberal regimes all the time in exchange for access to new markets. But we expect more from companies that insist—and loudly—that they are champions of liberal causes.
Twitter potentially has the most to lose. It’s less popular in Turkey than Facebook, but Twitter has identified itself so closely with free speech and protest that this ethical posture is now part of the company’s image.
It is an image that is starting to crack around the edges. When Twitter agreed to a State Department request in 2009 to delay maintenance so that the service could remain up for Iranian protestors, the company became, in the eyes of many, a tool of U.S. statecraft. And though Twitter won praise from privacy advocates in 2013 for pushing back against NSA’s PRISM program, it fields thousands of information requests per year from governments around the world.
At the top of that list of requesters is the U.S. government. Second is Turkey, which, according to Twitter’s latest transparency report, issued 356 requests in the second half of 2014. While Twitter cooperated with 80 percent of U.S. government requests during the same period, according to the report, it didn’t comply with any Turkish requests. That, on its face, seems reassuring. Yet the report offers only the barest of details, reminding us that “transparency” has become one of the great euphemisms of the age, shedding light but not insight.
The added irony of Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s accession to censorship is that these are supposed to be libertarian-spirited enterprises, animated by a disregard for government and a sense of supranational importance. Here Google could use some of the lobbying power it’s showed in dodging FTC investigations.
The banal truth is that the new corporate powers are just as calculating as the old ones. The idealism of today’s tech companies is selective, a garment put on for certain occasions. Anyway, for Twitter to defy Turkey’s censorship would be to risk depriving the Turkish people of the promoted tweets their government wants them to see. And in our market ideology, isn’t advertising the purest form of speech?