IGF 2023 WS #457 Balancing act: advocacy with big tech in restrictive regimes

Monday, 9th October, 2023 (08:00 UTC) - Monday, 9th October, 2023 (09:30 UTC)
WS 4 – Room B-1

Human Rights & Freedoms
Internet Shutdowns
Rights to Access and Information
Technology in International Human Rights Law

Organizer 1: Katia Mierzejewska, ARTICLE 19
Organizer 2: Suay Ergin-Boulougouris, ARTICLE 19
Organizer 3: Clarke Sarah, Article 19 Europe
Organizer 4: Kivilcim Ceren Buken, ARTICLE 19

Speaker 1: Suay Ergin-Boulougouris, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 2: Elonnai Hickok, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 3: Trinh Huu Long, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 4: Cagatay Pekyorur, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Sarah Clarke, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Online Moderator

Katia Mierzejewska, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Katia Mierzejewska, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Break-out Group Discussions - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

A. How can civil society balance the advocacy for digital rights with the potential risks of increased platform restrictions, and what strategies can be utilised to minimize harm to the communities they serve in authoritarian regimes?

B. What strategies and best practices can big tech companies adopt to resist undue government pressure, and how can they engage with civil society to ensure user interests are prioritised while maintaining service availability?

C. In a globalised world, how can repressive governments who have imposed restrictive internet legislation be effectively held to account to uphold their human rights commitments online?


What will participants gain from attending this session? In this session, participants will gain vital insights into the unique challenges and complex dynamics between civil society, big tech companies, and authoritarian regimes. By focusing on real-world examples from Turkey and Vietnam, attendees will comprehend the delicate balance between resisting undue government pressure, ensuring platform accessibility, and advocating for digital rights.

The session goes beyond awareness raising - a variety of strategies for navigating in authoritarian regimes will be explored and identified by participants during the brainstorming session. With actionable approaches generated in this workshop, civil society, big tech, and policymakers will be empowered to promote and protect the internet we desire - an open, inclusive, and democratic platform, regardless of the political landscape. What is more, participants will leave the session with a strengthened network of diverse professionals from various locations worldwide, all sharing a dedication to promoting human rights and freedoms in the digital realm.


The digital rights landscape is transforming into a battlefield due to the escalation of government-imposed restrictions. Authoritarian regimes exert immense control over online content, pushing big tech companies into a dilemma: either comply with restrictive orders or face potential throttling and severe sanctions. This becomes particularly problematic in contexts where online platforms serve as the only medium for dissent. Civil society's push for big tech companies to resist undue government pressure can lead to unintended consequences such as throttling or even total inaccessibility of these platforms, jeopardising the users and communities that civil society seeks to safeguard.

The gravity and complexity of this issue is underlined by recent cases. For instance, the pre-election context in Turkey saw big tech platforms such as Twitter, Meta, and YouTube caught in a predicament as the government mandated content blocking. Faced with the threat of bandwidth throttling on election eve, these platforms opted for content censorship. Similarly, Facebook succumbed to content blocking in Vietnam after being throttled.

This interactive workshop focuses on fostering actionable solutions and strategies to advocate for digital rights amidst such challenges. Drawing from recent incidents in Turkey and Vietnam, we underscore the complexities and consequences of digital rights advocacy in hostile environments. We aim to tackle the nuanced task of striking a balance between resisting undue government pressure and maintaining platform accessibility for users.

The workshop's goal extends beyond awareness-raising, we aim to identify best practices, formulate potential solutions, and promote actionable outcomes through breakout sessions. By addressing these pressing digital rights challenges, we aim to empower civil society and big tech in advocating for an open and inclusive internet, ensuring that the digital rights of all users are protected, even in the toughest political climates.

Expected Outcomes

The session aims to 1) Deepen participants’ understanding of the challenges faced by civil society when advocating for digital rights in authoritarian regimes, and the dilemma big tech companies find themselves in: either comply with undue government orders or face potential throttling and severe sanctions, such as advertising bans. 2) Identify best practices to promote digital rights and explore actionable strategies for civil society to engage with tech companies, potentially influencing future policy and practise for big tech operating under authoritarian regimes. 3) Obtain new insights into potential roles of democratic governments in promoting digital rights globally.

Possible outputs: 1) Follow-up roundtables to assess the implementation of the proposed strategies and their impact, creating a feedback loop for continuous learning and improvement. 2) A comprehensive report summarising the discussions, insights, and proposed strategies to navigate digital rights challenges in authoritarian regimes, to be disseminated online as appropriate.


Hybrid Format: Our plan for this hybrid session is facilitating an engaging and interactive experience for both onsite and online participants by utilising a reliable video conferencing platform like Zoom. The session will be structured to optimise engagement for all participants, regardless of their mode of attendance. Participants joining remotely can actively participate by posing questions or comments via the chat feature, monitored consistently throughout the session. For the breakout sessions, remote participants will be allocated to virtual breakout rooms - an approach we have successfully implemented previously.

A dedicated team member will be available both onsite and online to swiftly address technical issues and maintain uninterrupted communication. We also commit to creating an inclusive environment, with clear instructions and guidelines ensuring that remote participants can actively contribute to discussions. We will also consider using live polls on Zoom, giving all participants a chance to contribute to the discussion in real-time.


Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Increasingly authoritarian states are introducing legislation and tactics of online censorship, including internet shutdowns, particularly during politically sensitive periods. There is an urgent need for civil society and big tech to coordinate in mitigating risks to online free expression posed by sweeping legislative changes and practices empowering authoritarian states.

Lack of transparency in big tech's decision-making process, in particular regarding authorities’ user data and takedown requests, exacerbates mistrust and hinders effective collaboration between big tech and civil society, especially under authoritarian regimes. At minimum, platforms should develop comprehensive reports with case studies and examples on their responses in order to keep the civil society groups informed and in the conversation.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Civil society and big tech should initiate structured dialogues to create a unified framework for responding to legislation and practices that threaten online free expression, including internet shutdowns at the national, regional and global levels including through multi stakeholder fora such as the GNI.

Big tech companies must commit to radical transparency by publishing detailed policies and data on content moderation and government requests. The companies should establish a dedicated team that engages directly with local civil society, sharing information openly to address nuanced challenges faced in specific geopolitical contexts.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

Session report:

The session brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from civil society, big tech companies, and policy experts, to discuss the pressing challenges of online censorship, data privacy, and the role of big tech and civil society in authoritarian states. The session also highlighted the importance of multi-stakeholder dialogues and offered actionable recommendations for all parties involved.

The session highlighted that any meaningful progress on ensuring access to the internet and combating censorship online in restrictive regimes can only be achieved in a broader context, in conjunction with addressing the lack of rule of law, lack of independent judiciary, crackdown on civil society and absence of international accountability. 

Key discussions:

  • Legislative challenges: Participants highlighted the rise in authoritarian states introducing legislation aimed at online censorship, often under the guise of national security or cybercrime laws. These laws not only enable content censorship but also force platforms to share user data, posing significant human rights risks and chilling effect for online expression.
  • Big tech’s responsibility: There was a general consensus that big tech companies have a significant role to play in this landscape. There was also a strong sentiment that platforms need to step up their efforts in countries like Vietnam, where civil society has limited power to effect change due to authoritarian rule.
  • Lack of transparency, especially in big tech’s decision-making processes in particular regarding authorities’ user data and content takedown requests, was a recurring theme. This lack of transparency exacerbates mistrust and hinders effective collaboration between big tech and civil society. Additionally, it allows authoritarian governments to apply informal pressure on platforms.
  • Other barriers that hinders collaboration between big tech and civil society that were flagged by civil society included issues with the current mechanisms available for civil society to engage with big tech - long reaction time, little progress, no consistent follow-up, concealed results of bilateral meetings between the government and the platforms and the fact that country focal points are often in contact with the government especially in oppressive regimes which puts activists at risk. 
  • Civil society's role: Civil society organisations emphasised their ongoing efforts to hold big tech accountable. They also highlighted the need for more structured dialogues with tech companies to address these challenges effectively.
  • Multi-stakeholder approach: Both civil society and big tech representatives agreed on the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to tackle the issues. There was a call for more coordinated efforts, including monitoring legislative changes particularly in the face of rapid changes in the online space.
  • Remote participants: Feedback from remote participants underscored the urgency of the issues discussed, particularly the need for transparency and multi-stakeholder dialogues.

Turkey and Vietnam as case studies

Turkey and Vietnam were discussed as case studies to illustrate the increasing challenges of online censorship and government repression in authoritarian states. Both countries have seen a surge in legislation aimed at controlling online content, particularly during politically sensitive times, and both grapple with the complex role of big tech in their unique geopolitical contexts. Big tech in both countries face a difficult choice: comply with local laws and risk aiding in censorship, or resist and face being blocked or penalised.

The civil society representative from Vietnam highlighted that Facebook has a list of Vietnamese officials that cannot be criticised on the platform, highlighting the extent of government influence. Facebook and Google have been complying with the overwhelming majority (up to 95%) of content removal requests. Activists also pronounce big tech’s inaction in the face of the growing problem with the state-back online trolls. 

Some concrete examples showcasing successful advocacy and collaboration between big tech and civil society groups were discussed, such as, in 2022, the government in Vietnam turned the hard requirement of storing data locally to a soft requirement after civil society activism mobilised platforms to lobby with the government. 

In the case of Turkey, an amendment package passed in October 2022, introduced up to three years of imprisonment for "spreading disinformation and imposed hefty fines for big tech companies, including up to 90% bandwidth throttling and advertising bans for non-compliance with a single content take-down order, further complicating the operating environment for big tech companies. Companies are now also required to provide user data upon request of the prosecutors and courts in relation to certain crimes. 

The panel highlighted that this set of laws and lack of transparency allow authoritarian governments to place big tech under significant formal and informal pressure. The threat of throttling in the event of a non-compliance with government requests creates a particularly heightened chilling effect on platform decisions and their responsibility to respect human rights.

On the eve of the general and presidential elections on 14 May 2023, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook restricted access to certain content that involved videos critical of the government and various allegations of crime and corruption against the ruling AKP. While YouTube did not issue any public statement about the censorship on their platform, both Twitter and Meta noted in their public statements that Turkish authorities had made clear to them that failure to comply with its content removal request would lead to both platforms being blocked or throttled in Turkey.

In its transparency report, Meta explained that their top priority was to secure access of civil society to their platforms before and in the aftermath of the elections; and they made the decision to comply with government requests to remove the content because, although critical of the government, the content was not directly linked to election integrity. 

The panel also discussed that GNI principles state that ICT companies should avoid, minimise or otherwise address the impact of government demands if national laws do not conform to international human rights standards. The initiative also focuses on capacity-building within civil society to engage effectively with tech companies. The representative from GNI also mentioned a tool called “Human Rights Due Diligence Across the Technology Ecosystem” which was designed to formulate constructive asks to the relevant stakeholders depending on whether this is a social media platform, telecom company or a cloud provider. 

Recommendations for big tech:

  • Develop contingency plans to protect access to platforms during sensitive periods
  • Conduct human rights due diligence before taking any compliance steps
  • Actively engage with local NGOs and invite them for consultations
  • Full disclosure of government requests and compliance actions (Twitter’s publication of the government’s communication on censorship ahead of the Turkish elections was a step in the right direction)
  • Tackle the rise of internet trolls 
  • Protect civil society groups from false mass reporting and illegitimate account suspensions 
  • Expand end-to-end encryption for users' data privacy 

Recommendations for civil society:

  • Closer coordination on how to advocate for digital rights to avoid fragmented, unimpactful calls and align strategies to create a stronger stand against the government’s actions
  • Work together with platforms to formulate a multi-pronged strategy envisaging both private sector and civil society perspectives
  • Work towards increasing public literacy on digital rights 
  • Bring international attention to these critical issues

Recommendations for states:

  • Diplomatic efforts must extend to digital rights e.g. make them a proviso in trade agreements 
  • Financial and logistic support for NGOs