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For Activists, Facebook Is A Reluctant Platform

Whether Facebook likes it or not, it is now being used as a platform for activism, as the recent uprising in Egypt has shown. But that doesn't mean that Facebook is necessarily happy about it. "The Washington Post" has a piece looking at how Facebook is treading carefully:

But Facebook, which celebrates its seventh birthday Friday and has more than a half-billion users worldwide, is not eagerly embracing its role as the insurrectionists' instrument of choice. Its strategy contrasts with rivals Google and Twitter, which actively helped opposition leaders communicate after the Egyptian government shut down Internet access.

The Silicon Valley giant, whether it likes it or not, has been thrust like never before into a sensitive global political moment that pits the company's need for an open Internet against concerns that autocratic regimes could limit use of the site or shut it down altogether.


The recent unrest in Egypt and Tunisia is forcing Facebook officials to grapple with the prospect that other governments will grow more cautious of permitting the company to operate in their countries without restrictions or close monitoring, according to David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect," an authorized biography of the company's history. Facebook is also looking at whether it should allow activists to have a measure of anonymity on the site, he said.

"I have talked to people inside Facebook in the last week, and they are debating this internally," Kirkpatrick said. "Many countries where Facebook is popular have autocracies or dictatorships, and most of the countries have passively tolerated their popularity. But what's happened in Egypt or Tunisia is likely to change other countries' attitudes, and they'll be more wary of Facebook operating there."

There is a legitimate dilemma for Facebook here and I think it's about more than just it endeavoring to protect its market share. The dilemma also concerns the downside of Western tech companies promoting themselves as a platform for activism.

Of course, I'd much rather see corporations try to do good and help people on the ground, such as Google and Twitter's speak2tweet initiative, instead of Vodafone's complicity in both the Internet shutdown and in sending out mass pro-Mubarak rallying messages.

But there is a caveat. While very public initiatives like speak2tweet certainly do a lot of good, the companies responsible also run the risk of attracting greater scrutiny from governments and potentially see their services shut down or crippled. They can be damned by their successes. And if their actions are in line with, say, U.S. policy, by making those initiatives very public they also run the risk of being perceived as doing the bidding of the State Department. The Facebook execs quoted in the story are very careful about using technical language without a whiff of activism.

In the "Post's" story, Riyaad Minty, Al-Jazeera's social-media head, says he welcomes that approach:

"I do think governments see Facebook as a political tool, which is why Egypt has shut off the Internet," said Minty, adding that he prefers Facebook's more objective approach so it does not unnecessarily rattle conservative foreign leaders.

There is a parallel here with the dangers of the United States over-publicizing its circumvention efforts in the Western media. A Berkman Center report on proxies last year suggested that a lot of publicity (in the Beltway rather than with the people using them) could give the projects the kiss of death -- and increase their chance of getting filtered. Launching proxies on the quiet and letting a thousands flowers bloom might get less political mileage in Washington, but it might be more beneficial for the intended recipients.

So, while Facebook's motivation seems to be more about market share than a clever ploy to aid activists, it could turn out (unintentionally) to be a more nuanced approach. Digital activism could be more effective and covert when it's wrapped up in fluff: the pokes, the Farmville updates, and Lolcat videos.

On the other question of whether Facebook should allow activists to be anonymous on the site, Jillian York says Facebook is out of touch with reality:

That’s simply not how most people-in particular, activists-use Facebook. Using one’s real name is good, and I would encourage it whenever possible, but the truth remains that it’s not always a feasible choice. As Morozov has noted before, these tools can be great for activism, but they can also be used by governments to track down “troublemakers.” Facebook has before (Fouad Mourtada comes to mind) and will again been used in this manner.

I, for one, would like to see Facebook abandon this policy. It is, for lack of a better word, inane in light of how the platform is used globally. Facebook should listen to their users and accommodate their needs. To me, abandonment of the policy isn’t even that necessary; I just want to see a stop to crackdowns on vulnerable activists.

I mostly agree with this, but the devil is in the details. For Facebook, making exceptions would be a slippery slope. What credentials would a person need to provide to get a special activists' status? Seems like a bit of minefield to me, but maybe I'm wrong.