Foreign Policy: Ruling Facebookistan

Photo courtesy Max Schrems.

This image is a photoshopped composite created by Max Schrems, a Vienna-based activist and law student quoted in my latest piece for Foreign Policy about Facebook. As the tag line explains: “The world’s largest social networking site has a population nearly as large as China or India’s. And the natives are getting restless.” Here is how the piece begins:

At 6 p.m. Taipei time on Friday, June 1, Ho Tsung-hsun was suddenly shut out of his Facebook account. When he tried to log back in, a message in a red box announced: “This account has been disabled.” Ho, a veteran activist and citizen journalist on environmental and social issues in Taiwan, immediately took a picture of the message, then wrote an angry blog post on a Taiwan-based citizen journalism platform. He insisted that he had not violated any of the site’s community guidelines. Furthermore, he wrote, “the information I’ve collected and the Facebook groups that I’ve created and maintained all disappeared, which has caused inconvenience to my work and interpersonal relationships.”

Later that night, Ho’s account was restored — also without explanation. As it turned out, a number of Taiwanese politicians and activists hadall experienced similar problems on the same day. Angered by what seemed like an act of arbitrary punishment against people who were not violating the site’s rules in any way that they themselves could discern, Taipei City Councilor Ho Zhi-Wei wrote an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook — now a publicly listed company — “certainly has public responsibilities for public welfare.”

The incident underscored the extent to which people around the world have come to rely on Facebook for political activism and discourse — from the Green Movement in Iran, to revolutionaries in Egypt, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Facebook is not a physical country, but with 900 million users, its “population” comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people’s online activities and identities.

In apparent recognition that it faces real human rights risks and responsibilities, Facebook recently became an observer member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting core principles on free expression and privacy in the Internet and telecommunications industries. Whether the company ultimately joins as a full member, committing to uphold these principles and be held publicly accountable to them, will be a key test of its core values. Meanwhile, the postings, pages, likes, and friend requests of millions of politically active users have helped to make Zuckerberg and colleagues very rich. These people are increasingly unhappy about the manner in which Facebookistan is governed and are taking action as the stakes continue to rise on all sides.

Click here to read the rest.

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Kudos and Concerns for Google

Earlier this week, Google published an update of its Transparency Report, which among other things discloses the number of government requests received for user information as well as requests to remove content. The latest report contains more granular data than ever before, including the number of actual users targeted by the government requests. (China remains a black hole because releasing the data would break China’s “state secrets” law and expose Chinese employees to prosecution.) As The Guardian points out, the data show a 70% increase in requests by the U.S. government or police. The company has also refused some takedown requests, including video of police brutality.  In the first half of 2011, Brazil topped the list with the most requests for content removal, followed by Germany, the U.S., and South Korea.

In the book I argue that inadequate transparency and accountability at the nexus between state and corporate power is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. All Internet and telecommunications companies should be required to report regularly and systematically to the public on how content is policed, and under what circumstances it gets removed or blocked and at whose behest. All companies serious about building public credibility and trust should waste no time in following Google’s lead.

Google still has a long way to go, however, when it comes to managing the development and rollout of its various services in a way that does not hurt its most vulnerable users. As Chapter 10 described, the implementation and enforcement of the real-name identity policy on Google Plus has thus far been a fiasco, resulting in dissidents and other vulnerable users around the world being booted from the service. Google’s Senior VP of Social Vic Gundotra recently announced that the social network will “soon” provide support for pseudonyms and other forms of alternative identity not tied to people’s government-issued ID. However it remains unclear what “soon” means.

Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will soon make major changes to Google Reader (an RSS reader used by many people to follow, manage, and share content from a large volume of news and blog feeds). Some of the social sharing functions will be eliminated and Reader will be integrated more closely into Google Plus. What Google staff apparently did not anticipate is how these changes will hurt some users including Iranian users struggling to share information despite harsh censorship. Because Google Reader is encrypted with https, it is harder for the Iranian government to block than most other overseas sites and services. As one Iranian blogger explains:

Google Reader acts like a news spreading website. Easy access to Google reader made it suitable for Iranian community and through all these years, specially after June 2009 election, developed an strong community for spreading the news.

Elimination of Reader’s sharing functions will put an end to this. Even worse, if Reader is integrated with Google Plus before the company finds a way to accommodate pseudonymous users and other forms identity not tied to people’s government-issued identity, Iranian users will be left even further in the cold.