With Facebook playing a starring role in the revolts that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, you might think the company’s top executives would use this historic moment to highlight its role as the platform for democratic change. Instead, they really do not want to talk about it.
The social media giant finds itself under countervailing pressures after the uprisings in the Middle East. While it has become one of the primary tools for activists to mobilize protests and share information, Facebook does not want to be seen as picking sides for fear that some countries — like Syria, where it just gained a foothold — would impose restrictions on its use or more closely monitor users, according to some company executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal business.
And Facebook does not want to alter its firm policy requiring users to sign up with their real identity. The company says this requirement protects its users from fraud.
However, human rights advocates like Susannah Vila, the director of content and outreach for Movements.org, which provides resources for digital activists, say it could put some people at risk from governments looking to ferret out dissent.
“People are going to be using this platform for political mobilization, which only underscores the importance of ensuring their safety,” she said.
Under those rules, Facebook shut down one of the most popular Egyptian Facebook protest pages last November because Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who emerged as a symbol of the revolt, had used a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the administrators of the page, a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.
With Egypt’s emergency law in place limiting freedom of speech, Ghonim might have put himself and the other organizers at risk if they were discovered at that time. Activists scrambled to find another administrator to get the page back up and running. And when Egyptian government authorities did figure out Ghonim’s role with the Facebook page that helped promote the Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir Square, he was imprisoned for 12 days.
Last week, US Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat, urged Facebook to take “immediate and tangible steps” to help protect democracy and human rights activists who use its services, including addressing concerns about not being able to use pseudonyms.
In a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Durbin said the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia had highlighted the costs and benefits of social tools to democracy and human rights advocates.
“I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments,” he wrote.
Elliot Schrage, the vice president of global communications, public policy and marketing at Facebook, declined to discuss Facebook’s role in the recent tumult and what it might mean for the company’s services.
In a short statement, he said: “We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts, but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”
Other social media tools, like YouTube and Twitter, also played major roles in Tunisia and Egypt, especially when the protests broke out. Facebook, however, was the primary tool used in Egypt first to share reports about police abuse and then to build an online community that was mobilized to join the Jan. 25 protests.