Facebook, Ethiopia and De Gaulle's 18 June Call
For the second time, a US Big Tech censored an African leader. After the censorship of the Nigerian President by Twitter, Facebook has just censored the Ethiopian Prime Minister1 .
At first glance, from a deconflictualisation perspective, it is obvious that calls for violence need to be restrained. However, regardless of the analysis of the current Ethiopian civil war, the fact that a US company censors an African leader is problematic. Obviously, in general, this behavior undermines African sovereignties. Besides, the former Togolese Minister of prospective and evaluation of public policies, Kako Nubukpo, mentioned that digital sovereignty is part of African sovereignty, in the same way as monetary sovereignty.
In essence, Abiy Ahmed called on the Ethiopians to take up arms to counter the advance of the Tigray People's Liberation Front: a BBC article quotes a translation of the Ethiopian Prime Minister's call published by Addis Standard: "PM Abiy calls on 'our people' to temporarily hold occasional affairs, organise and march via legal manner to 'prevent, reverse & bury terrorist TPLF'. ". And RFI says the prime minister’s personal page called on citizens to "grab any weapon to fight, overthrow and bury" TPLF rebels.
In practice, the call of the Ethiopian Prime Minister is comparable to June 18, 1940 call to French people2 in which General De Gaulle clearly asked the French to take up arms against the German invasion. This is absolutely not about comparing the TPLF to the German army, but just to note that what Facebook accuses Abiy Ahmed of is identical to the content of De Gaulle's June 18 call.
An important question is therefore, if Facebook had existed in 1940, would Mark Zuckerberg have censored General De Gaulle? This is exactly the self-granted power of Facebook today. Can the international community accept that a US company has such power? What is the legitimacy of a private company to intervene in international affairs? What are the criteria used by this company to censor? What is the impact of the opinion of its leaders on this censorship?
For example, Facebook's real name policy was suggested by Mark Zukerberg's sister: when she was Marketing Director for Facebook, Randi Zuckerberg wanted to ban anonymity on the internet, because she believed that users would behave more civically if they were forced to use their real names. Yet Facebook's real name policy endangers lives.
Anyway, if the censorship of certain content may be needed because of their dangerousness or the damage they cause, respect for human rights requires that the content be first judged by a judge, and not by a private company: private censorship undermines the right to a fair trial.
Facebook makes decisions that fall under the justices established by democracies, or the international community. In the case of Ethiopia, the fact that a US company imagines it can supersede the international community should be a concern: after all, the end of the League of Nations was indeed hastened by its powerlessness when Abyssinia was invaded.
Another risk concerns the reputation of Big Tech: If President Trump has been censored, it remains after all a US domestic affair. On the other hand, the foreign leaders censored by Big Tech are two African leaders. But would Facebook dare to censor Emmanuel Macron, or one of the candidates for the French presidential election? Who knows.
For now the fact that the only foreign leaders censored are African leaders generates a considerable reputational risk for Big Tech since many actors could accuse them of racism or cyber-colonialism.