We dislike G**gle and F*c*book. Here is one reason.
Every year, Google and Facebook hand over data from roughly one hundred thousand user accounts to law enforcement and other requesters. Many of these requests come in the form of subpoenas, which do not require probable cause, can originate out of criminal or civil cases (such as SLAPP suits), and can request the content of emails. On top of that, there are preservation requests, which require companies to retain currently-held records for 90 days when asked to do so by a government entity (and such requests can be endlessly renewed).
Data requests are very common and growing steadily, as you see below.
Of course, such requests (and satisfaction of such requests) are not limited to the likes of Google and Facebook. For example, AT&T had over 130,000 requests for data on its US users in the first half of 2017, including 10,000 subpoenas for civil cases.
What are the chances activist accounts are exempt from these searches? What are the chances that law enforcement would not make requests for account information of activists who “threaten energy infrastructure”? What are the chances that anti-pipeline activists and water protectors might avoid eliciting subpoenas and preservation requests by or on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners?
In 2017, the Whatcom County prosecutor’s office in Washington State successfully seized “all profile information, including admin profiles or moderator profiles with status updates, messages, videos, […] event information including […] those who are ‘Interested,’ ‘Going,’ and ‘Invited'” for the Facebook event associated with a protest march to oppose fossil fuel export that blocked freeway traffic. The march was organized by the indigenous-led climate justice group, Red Line Salish Sea. After submitting a warrant that was at first too broad and then too specific for Facebook to satisfy, “Facebook suggested the county reach out to the Department of Justice for help in drafting a third warrant.” The third warrant was just right. The Facebook users who were administrators of the event page “did not have legal standing” to fight the warrant; only Facebook has that standing, and of course Facebook did not fight the warrant.
The DOJ also seized information from Facebook for the DisruptJ20 page (now “Resist This”) and two J20 protest spokespersons via warrants with accompanying gag orders that barred affected users from being informed for seven months.
Government spying on political associations violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been hotly litigated since the 1950’s and the exposure of the COINTELPRO travesties (if you don’t know about COINTELPRO, you definitely should). Consider the landmark 1958 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama which ruled that the right to associate and organize together was a protected privacy right and groups did not have to provide the government with membership lists. The Court ruled that “Privacy in group association […] may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”
Given that the State expends far more resources suppressing rather than preserving dissident movements, activists should not rely on online tools offered (for “free”) by powerful corporations to protect their organizing or keep their strategies and secrets safe. Social media can be invaluable for getting the word out, but activists should not be using these platforms to do the hard work of organizing, to have strategic or sensitive conversations with friends and comrades, or rely on them long-term as the only way to spread information. Check out our resources and recommendations on alternatives social movements can trust.