Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere

That’s the name of a paper I’m getting ready to publish (hopefully) next week.  As I’ve written before, Facebook has, in numerous cases in various countries, deleted accounts, groups, or content put on their site by activists.  From Hong Kong, where activists have written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg complaining of Facebook’s harassment and deactivation of activists, to Morocco, where some activists have been deleted from the site, asked for identification in order to reinstate their accounts, then received no assistance upon sending said identification, Facebook users are fed up.

Along with moderator Rebecca MacKinnon, Victoria Grand of YouTube, and Oiwan Lam of Global Voices, I addressed these issues at the Global Voices Summit last week. Here’s the video from the panel:

As Rebecca notes on her blog, a number of excellent audience and panelist suggestions arose from the panel:

* Automated moderation and abuse-prevention processes will inevitably result in mistakes that hurt activists. Human judgment – informed by adequate knowledge of cultures, languages, and political events around the world – needs to be brought into the mix.
* Companies need to be as transparent and open as possible about how their takedown, moderation, and suspension procedures work. Otherwise they have nobody but themselves to blame if users cease to trust them.
* Companies should designate staff members to focus on human rights. Their job should be to develop channels for regular communication with the human rights community.
* It’s almost impossible for globally popular social networking and content-sharing services to hire enough staff with enough knowledge of political movements and disputes in all obscure corners of the world in all kinds of languages. But communities like Global Voices and others with large networks of bloggers and online activists all over the world are ready and willing to help companies keep abreast of political hot-button issues and online movements around the world – and even provide help with obscure languages – so that extra care can be taken, and political activism won’t be mistaken for spam or some other form of abusive behavior. We just need to figure out how to set up workable mechanisms through which this kind of feedback, advice, and communication can take place.
* Activists need to pay closer attention the Terms of Service used by social networking platforms, and be more proactive in educating themselves about how moderation, takedown, and abuse-prevention mechanisms work. We probably need a “Guide to avoiding account suspension and takedown for human rights activists.”
* It might also be good to have some kind of respected clearing house organization – or consortium of organizations – which can help mediate and resolve problems between activists and companies.
* People who rely on social networking and content sharing platforms run by companies to do political and social activism should engage more actively with company administrators to improve policies and practices. Anticipate problems and help solve them not only for yourself but for everybody else in the community. Act like a citizen. Not a passive “user.”

These issues are arising at a time when “ordinary” (non-activist) users of Facebook are up in arms about the company’s many affronts to privacy: the ACLU has set up a petition. There’s a Facebook Day of Inaction planned for June 6. The EU is pissed. There’s also a Quit Facebook Day planned for May 31, but as the SF Chronicle points out, it’s not particularly gaining traction.

As many of us in this sphere have noted, there’s a reason for that: You can’t take it with you, and by “it” I mean your network. Facebook has become so embedded in many of our lives that, though there are alternatives (MySpace, orkut, Twitter, etc.), few of them measure up to the network offered by Facebook. Truth be told, Facebook’s services aren’t all that great; it’s photo-uploader crashes Firefox constantly, and I’ve heard nary a positive anecdote about the new Community pages. What Facebook offers is your network, in one, simple, easily-accessed place. Or as Lokman Tsui notes, “Facebook effectively holds our friends as hostages. The ransom is not our privacy, but our freedom.”

I’ve watched over the past few months as a number of privacy-minded friends have abandoned Facebook for greener pastures. Some, like Lokman, have decided to stick with Twitter and the old-fashioned keeping-in-touch method known as e-mail. Others have sought alternatives, like the up-and-coming Diaspora. Still others have no alternative in mind, and just want out.

Though I think Lokman and others have great points, I’m not sure I’m ready to leave Facebook. Though I wouldn’t miss its services (or privacy violations) at all, I tend to think that this is one area where engagement (vs. sanctions, to use Rebecca’s analogy) makes sense. The Quit Facebook Day is a nice idea, but its implementation doesn’t come with principled demands (or transparency, for that matter–we don’t know who’s behind the campaign).

From the numerous examples of account deactivations I’ve received in my inbox over the course of the past few weeks, here’s what I’m noticing: All of these activists still want to use Facebook. Why? I don’t have all the answers, but I would surmise that it’s because Facebook is where the people are. Facebook is blocked by the Syrian government, yet a quick search by location for “Syria” tells me there are more than 500 users based there (and I’m willing to bet it’s actually many more). People are, for whatever reason (be it cute cats or life-or-death issues) climbing over walls to get to Facebook.

I’ve been involved in a number of Facebook-based campaigns myself, many of which were not based in the U.S.  I’m not one to argue that Facebook is the be-all end-all activism tool, or that it’s changing the world, but the fact of the matter is, activists use Facebook for successful organizing. Whether it’s simply to bring a group of like-minded people together to discuss potential campaigns, or to raise money for a shared goal, or otherwise, it’s happening.  If I leave Facebook, can I still support these people?  If I ditch my 1,000+ Facebook network, can I still reach the same contacts?

And so, while it’s all well and good to have a Quit Facebook Day, that doesn’t begin to address the myriad issues that Facebook users are facing globally, be they activists or otherwise. Instead, perhaps the solution is to talk to Facebook users and find out what it is that’s keeping them there, then do the best we can to encourage those changes within Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. from the perspective of internet users/activists living under repressive regimes engaged in Internet filtering, facebook, sadly, is the only venue to gather information, disseminate it, and get in touch with like-minded people, family and friends. As you mentioned, advocacy campaigns on facebook are now becoming the rule. I have hard time convincing activists to build their campaign outside of the closed space of facebook.

    I do share the privacy concerns with you and others, but I think that this concern is not the priority of non-western facebookers, we do have other priorities. For me, and I’m sure for other people, Facebook is an information mining. Most of the citizen media videos and photos are being published there. We cannot afford to quit it as we will make ourselves more isolated from the average users.

    The privacy concern seems to be a US-EU centric topic as you are not facing Internet censorship and you do have alternative venues for sharing and disseminating information. I appreciate the fact that people like you are raising awareness about facebook privacy, but I don’t think it will reach out to the non-western users.

    • Sami, I think you’re mostly right. The issue of privacy is an issue of privilege (which has been addressed quite well by others and which I’ll address in my next post). That said, I don’t think the privacy concern is entirely a Western one, though you’re probably right that it’s not the main priority.

      Nevertheless, I think that’s the main barrier I face in the desire to quit Facebook; campaigns like QuitFacebookDay ignore activist users (both in the US, but more importantly, in non-western countries), and quitting means that I can’t be tapped in (and helpful to) Facebook campaigns.

      In the end though, I think your point about Facebook as a mine of information deserves a lot more attention. Write something with me?

  2. I’d love to write something, but will be traveling back on monday, let’s draft something while in Doha?

  3. Totally agree with Sami… And it was this point I was trying to make with you earlier on Twitter, albeit not from an activist point of view…

  4. Disabling personal accounts!!! Why Facebook Team needs to create such a misery to people they have chosen to join facebook, where is their humanity and social understanding? don’t they have enough Education In Social Relations?

    Why Facebook Team is making Facebook image look to the innocent people with disabled accounts like is run by a Neo-Nazi Dynasty!!!

    This kind of practice belong to a non civilized country and not to North America where is based Facebook. This Is An Insult To The American Liberty Symbol And To The Whole Civilized Free World!!!

    Also is against facebook slogan that; facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life…Is this misleading? In this case Yeees, It Is Misleading People!!!.

    Does Facebook Team needs this kind of environment around with unhappy mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and children ??? No, Facebook has all the technology and means to monitor and control and stop any misuse of the rules…why to disable a precious personal account…

    Facebook Team has to show some Compassion towards people with disabled accounts which are not criminals and their life is upside-down just because Facebook’s security systems determined that they were repeatedly using the same feature or engaging in the same behavior in a short period of time…is this an issue people to be penalized and been deprived from their undeniable right to communicate with the people in their life due to the fact, they can not have access to their own personal data!!!?

    Mark Zuckerberg, to repair Feacebook’s Battered image has to give priority to this issue and be more respectful to the people who supported facebook and brought it to this stage of a great success….

    Montreal-Laval, Quebec.
    glykis@sympatico.ca

  5. The abusive treatment to millions of people around the Glob by Facebook, is becoming an Eyesore to the whole Free World and a Mud Throwing on the Face of Every Nation’s Leader and the members of their Government…..They are all having their Facebook Account with their Picture Posted on their Profile…Looking Handsome and Beautiful and Turning a Blind Eye to the Neo Nazi Treatments of Certain Facebook Subscribers With Minor User Issues…!!!!!! Is Better The world Leaders and the members of their Government to Go Down To The Dark Alleys of facebook Concentration Sufferers;~”Facebook account disabled ” ~ ” Please Unblock My Facebook Account” ~ “Facebook account reinstated” ~ “Please Unblock My Facebook Disabled Account” And to More…In order to See Thousands of People representing a fraction of the sufferers down to their knees begging for their disabled account to be reactivated….!!!!!! And then Perhaps, will understand that is time to protect the ordinary Citizen from these Arrogant Facebook people who are using their skills and the Internet Technology to torture People Psychologically and Abuse Their Human Rights..!!!!!

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