Facebook’s parent company Meta has reportedly granted the Kazakh government access to the social media network’s “content reporting system.” According to a joint statement posted by the press service of the Kazakh Ministry of Information and Social Development, Facebook has agreed to grant Kazakhstan “direct and exclusive access to Facebook’s ‘Content Reporting System’ (CRS) which can help the government to report content that may violate Facebook’s global content policy and local laws of Kazakhstan.”
Facebook’s role in stoking violence the world over is again headline news these days, especially following whistleblower leaks highlighting a multitude of issues on the platform. While much attention has focused in the past on the West, Facebook is all the more troubled in the rest of the world, where it struggles with moderation and misinformation in cultural contexts the tech scions of Silicon Valley are deeply unfamiliar with.
Kazakhstan is such a case, as the new agreement illustrates.
Access to the content reporting system, per the joint statement, “will allow the Ministry to promptly report content containing violations of both Facebook’s global content policy and the national legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
In the statement, Facebook Regional Public Policy Director George Chen says Facebook is pleased to be working with the Kazakh government, citing hopes that granting access to the content reporting system will help “authorized bodies of the Government of Kazakhstan to more effectively and efficiently fight harmful content,” particularly ensuring the safety of children on the internet.
The problem of leaning on the Kazakh government to judge content is that Nur-Sultan regularly characterizes criticism as crimes; never mind the very real challenges of addressing misinformation and genuinely hateful content.
Article 174 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code addresses incitement of “social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” and the government has broadly applied the statue to target political activists and others. The same article criminalizes “insult of the national honor and dignity or religious feelings of citizens” and “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on grounds of their relation to religion, class, national, generic or racial assignment.”
For example, in 2015, Kazakh authorities detained a pair of activists for “fomenting ethnic strife” in Facebook posts. The subject of the offending posts by Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin were alleged excerpts from an unpublished book by another activist, Murat Telibekov, which as Human Rights Watch wrote at the time “describe the Kazakh nation in provocative terms.”
As Casey Michel wrote for The Diplomat in early 2016, “The postings dealt with the topic of Kazakh nationalism, which has spiked following both Kazakhstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union and the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist policies through the former Soviet Union, most especially out of Ukraine.
In late 2016, another Kazakh man was given a three-year sentence for criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin on Facebook.
In more recent years, Kazakh citizens have run awful of the law for expressing support for either the Koshe (Street) Party or the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) — both banned in the country. DVK was banned as an extremist group given that its leader, the infamous former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, has consistently and strongly called for a change of regime in Kazakhstan. With opposition equated so easily with extremism, what’s to stop Kazakh authorities from branding all political content not in favor of the status quo as illegal?
The timing of the agreement may have more to do with Kazakhstan’s recent legislative efforts to mandate that Facebook and other social media companies register in Kazakhstan and open local representative offices or risk being blocked. The law ostensibly sought to address cyberbullying and protect children.
In mid-September, when the draft law was approved, Adil Jalilov, head of the Kazakh-based MediaNet journalism center, wrote on Facebook: “What children are these rules going to protect? Perhaps only those of MPs and civil servants – from investigations by journalists and bloggers.”
In giving the Kazakh government direct access to identify content as problematic, Facebook is empowering an autocratic government to further police what its citizens say.