On 10 May 2018, the Lebanese band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir (The Great Departed) announced on Facebook that iTunes Middle East had refused to upload their songs "Mawlid Sayyidi al-Baghdadi" ("Saint Baghdadi's Birthday Celebration"), "Janna al-Shaabu" ("The People Went Crazy"), "Do Not Mix", "Khitab Muhim" ("An Important Speech"), and "Ummt Tlaat Maa al-Nas" ("I Marched With The People") because it deemed them "inappropriate for the Arab world".
The songs mock religious fundamentalism, political oppression, military rule and other aspects of repression common to the Middle East. For us, this campaign was an opportunity to begin taking on the content moderation and censorship that is performed by tech companies rather than local governments.
As soon as we saw the band's message on Facebook, we reached out to them, and quickly agreed to coordinate our actions. We decided on two main aims: we wanted iTunes Middle East to make the band's songs available on its platform, and we wanted the company to publish its transparency report, showing the decision-making process that had led to the songs being censored.
We decided to create pressure on two fronts at once – public and private – and launched our campaign on 11 May.
On the public front, we sought to engage members of the public by showing them that banning songs was an assault on their freedom of speech. The main focus here was an online petition which went viral – thanks in large part to the involvement of the band's large fan base – receiving over 1,000 signatures within the first half-hour. In addition to this, we published blog posts supporting the campaign.
On the private front, we approached iTunes's Middle Eastern representative directly. At the very same time that we were setting up and promoting the petition online, we were on the phone with him. Within two days iTunes contacted the band and agreed to make the songs available on the its Middle East platform – an unprecedented success!
None of us expected it. Petitions are often used in Lebanon, but we haven't seen one be so successful so quickly. iTunes told us that Qanawat, a UAE-based intermediary, had been responsible for banning the songs in the first place. And they pledged to work with another content aggregator to upload the band's songs.
Our success has not been complete, however. While we're glad to see that iTunes Middle East has uploaded the songs, we're still waiting for the company to release its transparency report.
The cultural context: there's massive distrust of political and business entities in the region, so we weren't sure of how engaged the public would be. We certainly didn't expect iTunes to even respond, never mind respond so positively.
Dealing with corporations that have their regional headquarters in repressive states. The kind of censorship problem we were dealing with here is a serious issue across the Middle East. As many companies base themselves in Gulf States states where free expression is radically curtailed by law, meaning that the company has to abide by these laws. This gives them an excuse for, and sometimes a legal responsibility to, suppress legitimate free speech.
A small, tight network is most effective: In Lebanon, if you don't know someone, you probably know someone who knows someone. Our executive director is a friend of the manager of the band, so we were able to get things moving fast and stay in touch throughout the campaign. We're also part of a rapid response mechanism (which we actually helped set up) comprised of civil society groups: it's a way of bringing people together quickly to create momentum for an action, whether that's online or on the streets.
"Strike while the iron is hot! As soon as we saw the band's Facebook post we got in touch with them. Events change rapidly, as does the news cycle, and people have short attention spans. Don't give them the chance to move on to the next subject; act while the tension is high."
Take the most direct approach and go straight to the top: We found the phone number of iTunes's Middle Eastern representative and we just called him! It took a few attempts before he picked up, but we eventually got talking to the person who had the actual ability to change things. We asked him directly why the songs were banned and when iTunes would be publishing its transparency report. Once we were able to reach him, he was actually very forthcoming…
A strong social media presence is essential. We have one, and so does the band, which gave our messaging wide and diverse reach. Corporations seem to be more willing to respond when outrage builds up online, even if they're motivated only by public embarrassment and a desire to protect their public image.
"Simple can often be better: sometimes you don't need to complicate things. A phone call and a quick petition was enough in this case."
The international factor was influential. Global corporations seem to be more susceptible to public outrage; if we'd been dealing with only with a regional company, we might not have been so successful.
"Something that will be informing our work generally as we go forward, and which we learned from the campaign, is that there is sometimes a willingness among international companies to listen: they’re actually open to discussion in a way that regional businesses usually aren't."
SMEX is looking at ways to persuade iTunes to publish their transparency report. At the Bread&Net digital rights unconference in November 2018 – the first of its kind in the region – content moderation and online free speech were key topics discussed with a representative from Twitter and a previous content moderator for Facebook. In a region where lobbying for policies is often limited, and sometimes impossible, this allowed participants – techies, judges, activists, digital rights advocates, academics, and more – to actively engage with the process of corporate accountability, and to recognize the possibility of directly engaging with corporate actors.
For more about the SMEX campaign, please visit their website.