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A Surprising Barrier to Web Organizing: Facebook

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While online social networks are helping advance protests in the Middle East, activists have discovered a surprising barrier to web organizing: Facebook.

To understand this dichotomy, it helps to distinguish between Facebook the company and Facebook the platform.

In Egypt, of course, organizers used the platform because Facebook was a popular way to demonstrate support for demonstrations – it has more users in Egypt than any other Middle Eastern country. They did not use it because the company backed the uprising or the right to assemble. Quite the opposite.

As a company, Facebook’s rules and architecture actually impeded organizers in Egypt. And its corporate policy is lukewarm on reform.

“The turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve,” Facebook noted in a meek statement on the seventh day of protests. Then, worse than rhetoric and neglected in recent media coverage, the company actually shut down one of the top Egyptian protest groups in December. The group’s administrators were using pseudonyms to avoid government retaliation , according to Harvard researcher Jillian York, a violation of Facebook’s rules. One of those anonymous administrators turned out to be Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was later abducted. At the time, the group's supporters protested Facebook and got it reinstated; soon they were back to protesting much bigger adversaries.

That was not an isolated skirmish for Facebook as a company, either. In contrast to Google, Facebook has refused to sign the Global Network Initiative , a compact devoted to preventing web censorship by authoritarian governments and protecting individual privacy, based on the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Both of those goals cut into the profits generated from doing business in closed societies and monetizing users’ information.) It is technically possible, of course, for Facebook to require Westerners to use their real identities, while affording some protection to users risking their lives to fight police states. So far, the company has usually declined.

These are key tradeoffs, especially as the pseudo-public forums of privately held companies play a pivotal role in international uprisings. Lately, a lot of Western media commentary has focused on the fashionable question of whether Egypt was (or wasn’t!) a digital uprising, as if apportioning the proper people-to-tech ratio for credit is an urgent priority. For reformers and governments, however, the core policy questions are more about information policy and human rights. After all, in asymmetric conflicts between oppressive regimes and the people whom they oppress, it is no surprise that the authoritarians will try to refract innovations for their agenda. What is striking, instead, is that when facing down Goliath, some protestors found a hole to exploit before their oppressors caught up.

One can point to many factors that helped trigger Egypt’s uprising. The big ones are obviously “offline,” real-world social conditions. There is also no doubt, however, that another trigger was the threat of a citizen turning the tools of surveillance back on the state: The martyred Khaled Said had video of police corruption in June, when Egyptian police grabbed him from an Internet café and beat him to death. In turn, the sousveillance of Said’s corpse was another trigger, as illicit pictures of his disfigured face, snapped on a cellphone in the morgue, went viral online. And then came the Facebook trigger: First Google executive Ghonim helped form the famous solidarity group as a riposte to those pictures. Then other groups responded, and helped spread the street protests. In each of those cases, the trigger was a network – the mere threat of using one, or the act of growing one to mobilize more people.

The answer to whether Egypt-style uprisings succeed in other countries will depend, at least in part, on how those networks are operated by American companies, and how they respond to pressure from governments around the world.

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This post is excerpted from a longer essay originally published in The Nation. You can discuss this series with Ari Melber on his Facebook page.

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