In recent weeks, Facebook pages and groups trying to mobilize protesters have sprung up in Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco and Syria. Hashtags on Twitter have also helped spread the protests, which extended to Algeria over the weekend and to Bahrain, Iran and Yemen on Monday.
“This is an incredible challenge and an incredible opportunity for Facebook, Twitter and Google,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where he works on projects about the use of technology and media in the developing world. “It might be tougher for Facebook than anyone else. Facebook has been ambivalent about the use of their platform by activists.”
Unlike Vodafone and other telecommunications carriers that often need contracts and licenses to operate within countries, Facebook and other social networks are widely available around the world (except in countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have restricted access) and encourage the free flow of information for anyone with access to the Internet.
In a speech that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered on Tuesday, she again emphasized that Internet freedom is an inalienable right. In recent weeks, the US State Department has been sending out Twitter updates in Arabic and began sending updates in Persian over the weekend.
Twitter and YouTube, which is owned by Google, have been more willing to embrace their roles in activism and unrest, Zuckerman said.
After the Internet was shut down in Egypt, Twitter and Google actively helped protesters by producing a new service, speak2tweet, that allowed people to leave voicemail messages that would be filed as updates on Twitter. Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s founders, used it as an opportunity to emphasize the positive global impact that comes with the open exchange of information.
When the Internet was back up, YouTube, working with Storyful, a social media news curation service, took the thousands of videos pouring in from the protests in Tahrir Square to help people access and share the information as quickly as possible on CitizenTube, its news and politics channel.
Facebook has taken steps to help protesters in Tunisia after government officials used a virus to obtain local Facebook passwords this year. The company rerouted Facebook’s traffic from Tunisia and used the breach to upgrade security last month for all of its more than 550 million users worldwide; at the same time, it was careful to cast the response as a technical solution to a security problem.
There are about 2 million Facebook users in Tunisia and 5 million in Egypt. Debbie Frost, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said the company was not considering changing its policy requiring users to use their real identity, which she says leads to greater accountability and a safer environment.
“The trust people place in us is the most important part of what makes Facebook work,” she said, adding that the company welcomed a discussion with Durbin and others who have an interest in this matter. “As demonstrated by our response to threats in Tunisia, we take this trust seriously and work aggressively every single day to protect people.”