Why we shouldn't expect Facebook and its Silicon Valley peers to act in the world's best interests.
Last week, Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner accidentally made news. Asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter how the social networking giant, which is trying to break into the Chinese market, would navigate a country whose government is famously skittish about unfettered information exchange, Conner replied, "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before."
Conner’s statement shocked many observers, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Lauded as a tool of revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook has surely provided a unique platform for mobilization. And yet, Facebook regularly comes under scrutiny for privacy and free expression violations and, unlike Silicon Valley peers such as Twitter and Google, has itself shied away from recognition as a political tool. Most recently, after pressure from an Israeli minister, Facebook staff began monitoring a page calling for a third intifada in Palestine, eventually taking the page down, claiming that it contained incitement to violence.
That same week, Facebook hosted a virtual "town hall" with President Barack Obama, in which curious citizens could ask the president questions (selected by Facebook staffers) or just follow along at home (if they were willing to sign up for a Facebook account and "like" the event’s page). By choosing Facebook, Obama’s team implicitly endorsed a company whose actions, in China and elsewhere, run counter to the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-remarked-upon January 2010 speech on the subject. And while a town hall is usually a public meeting, Facebook is not a public space, even if its more than 500 million users treat it like one — it is a privately owned enterprise with the freedom to do whatever it wants, be it mining user data to sell to advertisers or deleting pictures of your friends and family on a whim.
The Obama campaign’s choice of venue spoke volumes about the assumptions that people now make about the social media tools that have increasingly permeated our lives — and Conner’s comments are a reminder of why those assumptions are no longer enough. Corporations can and do act in a manner that upholds the principles of Internet freedom that Clinton and others have articulated. The problem lies in figuring out what to do when they don’t — and when the U.S. government chooses to ignore such failures.
One of the first inklings that a globalized Internet was going to pose these sorts of thorny ethical dilemmas arrived in 2000, when then-dominant tech giant Yahoo was taken to court in France for allowing the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. After various proceedings, Yahoo ultimately backed down, choosing to ban items associated with hate groups. The lesson? It is often easier to appease a foreign government than to fight it in the global commons.
U.S. tech companies, particularly those that host user-generated content, have walked a fine line ever since: Censoring content brings the wrath of free expression advocates, while, as Google learned in China, not censoring is the fastest way to lose a conservative emerging market. Some companies have leaned toward a principled stance, others choose to comply with government demands, and still others filter content of their own accord.
In 2006, Google consented to appeasement when it launched Google.cn in China. Caught between a rock and a hard place — the prospect of losing an emerging market on one hand and of going against the company’s "don’t be evil" mantra on the other — Google weighed its options and decided that while filtering search results compromised Google’s overall mission, failing to provide search capabilities to a fifth of the world’s population compromised its mission more severely. But four years later (and nine days before Clinton’s remarks on Internet freedom), Google had a change of heart: Noting the global debate centered on free expression and increasing Chinese repression, the company announced it would stop filtering content, a policy shift that effectively ended Google’s business in China. The change followed a series of attacks on critical Google infrastructure — some of them targeting Chinese human rights activists — that the company suspected had been committed by the Chinese government.
In her January 2010 speech, Clinton referenced Google’s China conundrum, noting that U.S. companies have taken steps to make free expression online a greater consideration in their business decisions. And indeed they have; in September of that same year, Google hosted a conference in Budapest on Internet freedom, bringing together experts and activists from around the globe. Google has also worked toward greater transparency, offering up an interactive map showing government requests for removal of content or user information.
The Mountainview-based giant has since been joined by Yahoo and Microsoft in forming the Global Network Initiative (GNI), whose stated aims of protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy online have earned plaudits from the State Department. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s last-ditch attempt to quash the nascent Egyptian revolution with an unprecedented Internet shutdown in January brought a dose of moral clarity to the issue and prompted technology companies to rapidly innovate. Twitter and Google built Speak2Tweet in a weekend, allowing Egyptians to call a number and share news. Facebook had similarly responded to government meddling in Tunisia by quickly making HTTPS — a secure access protocol — available to users there, more than a month before unveiling the feature site-wide.
How do you ensure that online enterprises err on the side of free expression? Legislation is one option. The Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would bar U.S. companies from aiding the censorship and surveillance operations of repressive foreign governments. The bill — which Smith first proposed in 2007 and revived in late 2009 — seems unlikely to reach the floor of the House of Representatives anytime soon. But while the legislation is imperfect — among other things, it would limit companies from hosting sensitive user data in "internet-restricting countries," which could discourage investment in certain places — it would go a long way toward preventing companies from violating human rights. The companies, of course, would rather police themselves, and multi-stakeholder initiatives like the GNI are an effort to do that. But while the GNI has benefited from working closely with human rights organizations, it has had limited success in bringing new companies on board.
American companies ultimately have a tough choice to make: Uphold American values and the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Clinton, or focus on the bottom line. And as Facebook’s calculations on China show, until external enforcement measures exist, they are all too likely to choose the latter.