Facebook at Center of Egypt Protests

In light of the current turmoil on the streets of Egypt, the co-director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has called upon Facebook and Twitter to announce and abide by a code of conduct that prioritizes user rights in the face of government crack downs.

“Twitter and Facebook have played a crucial role in almost any mass protest in the last few years,” co-director John G. Palfrey ’94 said. “They are taking on a special role, [so] they have special responsibilities.”

Palfrey called upon Twitter and Facebook to either come out with a code of conduct on their own or to join the Global Network Initiative—whose members include Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo—which created a code of conduct for companies in responses to crises like the current uprising in Egypt.

The GNI, of which Facebook and Twitter are not members, provides guidelines for how websites should “respect, protect and advance user rights to freedom of expression and privacy, including when faced with government demands for censorship and disclosure of users’ personal information,” according to the their website.

Though websites are bound to follow local law in the countries in which their users reside, local statutes sometimes conflict with the core values of the sites, said Jillian C. York, a project coordinator for the Berkman Center.

For example, if the Egyptian government petitioned Facebook to release names of all citizens who organized protests on the site, Facebook would be obligated under local law to comply, Palfrey said.

Although neither Twitter nor Facebook have joined the GNI or publicly announced codes of conduct, the two networking giants have responded differently to the uprising in Egypt.

Twitter worked with Google and SayNow to ensure that Egyptians had a way to access the social networking site during the internet blackout.

On Jan. 31, the three companies announced a service called “Speak2Tweet,” which allows users to call one of three international lines and leave a message. Workers then dictate the message, translate them to English, and make the posts public on the “Speak2Tweet” Twitter account. York said that staffers at the OpenNet Initiative—which partners with the Berkman Center—have helped to translate the messages, which have been posted on a separate Twitter account called “AliveInEgypt.”

Facebook, which critics allege has been more hesitant to fight government filtering than companies like Google, said in a statement that the turmoil in Egypt “is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve” and that “no one should be denied access to the Internet.”

Despite Facebook’s alleged passivity during the Egyptian uprising, Facebook membership in the country is at an all-time high at five million. In the past two weeks in Egypt, 14,000 pages and 32,000 groups were made by Egyptian users.

Media reports indicate that Facebook has been a critical tool for organizers behind the protests, which threaten to topple the long-time regime of Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian government’s move to shut off the internet from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1 was “rare” and “much more dramatic” than most other cases of government moves to control the Internet, Palfrey said.

While several dozen countries filter the internet—like China and Turkey—Palfrey said that the 2007 Safron Revolution in Burma was the only other incident in recent history where a country was taken completely off-line.

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at carolinemckay@college.harvard.edu.

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