Social Media and Human Rights in the Media

I’m extremely pleased–yes, without snark–to see the media picking up on the very auspicious topic of incorporating human rights into social media platforms, a topic I’ve been tracking since March of 2010, and which I covered in my paper, Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere. Others, like Rebecca MacKinnon and Danny O’Brien of CPJ, have been following and reporting on these issues as well, while some companies, such as Google, have been up front about their concern for free expression, even going so far as to host conferences on the subject. There are also, of course, NGOs like the Global Network Initiative and the Center for Democracy and Technology (and of course the Berkman Center, where I work) that are thinking about this as well.

Last week, Adrian Chen argued in Gawker that Facebook should be doing more to help Egypt’s protesters, noting that, “In many ways, Facebook has made itself actively hostile to those who would organize against a repressive regime or advance an unpopular idea”.  Chen also called Facebook’s neutral public position toward human rights “bordering on cowardly.”

Chen’s piece appears to have influenced others (it also sent loads of visitors to my blog; even more than the NYTimes – go Gawker!), with excellent pieces following from GigaOm, and The Register.  I’ve also spoken about the subject to numerous others for background.

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a thoughtful Reuters piece that touched on the subject as well; journalist Chrystia Freeland, in a first-person piece entitled “Doing Good for the World Versus Doing Good for the Bottom Line,” writes:

What we have paid less attention to is that the demonstrations have forced some of the world’s hottest technology companies to engage in a very similar debate. The conclusions these technorati end up drawing may be as significant as the verdicts of Western governments. And this new intellectual battleground is a further sign that in the age of the Internet and the global economy, foreign policy doesn’t belong just to professionals or to states anymore.

Freeland goes on to say:

That halo [of tech companies being seen as legitimate forces for good] brings many benefits. But as technology emerges as a force for real good in some of the grimmest parts of the world, that reputation may force technology firms to stick with their idealism even if realism might be better for the bottom line.

“There is a higher expectation of technology companies than of any others,” Mr. Edelman said. “There would be a lower expectation of resource companies, for instance. It is why, ultimately, Google walked in China.”

We used to say that Western missionaries came to do good, and ended up doing well. Technology firms could find themselves forced to do good, even if it sometimes means doing badly.

I think Freeland’s premise–that people have formed high expectations for tech, and perhaps especially social media companies–is legitimate. What I’m less sure about, however, is the extent to which some of these companies have actually earned their reputations. Google most certainly is among the top contenders, but even still, I am occasionally perturbed (why, for example, does Google have a license to export Earth, Chrome, and Gears to Iran but not Syria? Is that an oversight of theirs or the fault of the State Department?). Twitter certainly earned accolades by standing up to the Department of Justice in respect to Wikileaks. Facebook has done good in rolling out HTTPS and protecting user privacy, but what about their lack of concern for human rights activist who aren’t safe using their real names?

In any case, the point of this post was simply to mention how glad I am that this conversation is gaining traction in the press, as well as in the conference circuit. I’ll be speaking on a panel soon with Rebecca MacKinnon, Danny O’Brien, and Ebele Okobi-Harris of Yahoo! at SXSW in March that will hopefully be well attended and kick off the broader conversation. I know that other organizations are doing thinking in this area as well. Now it’s time to make sure the companies are thinking about it too.

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