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After Egypt: The "Democratic Republic of Facebook" Struggles to Grow Up [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, February 25 2011

A few days ago, Dr. Rasha Abdulla, an expert on the role of the Internet in Egypt who teaches at the American University in Cairo (and who I'm pleased will be speaking at Personal Democracy Forum this June in New York), told me about a strange experience she had with her Facebook page during the height of the uprising against the Mubarak regime. A video of a defenseless Egyptian man being gunned down by police in Alexandria on January 28th, which she and others had tried to share on their Facebook pages, was mysteriously taken down without explanation during the heat of the protests.
[Warning, this video is not for the faint of heart.]

Then, a day later, it was back up again. As this screenshot from Abdulla's page shows, the experience was completely befuddling to her and her friends. "We have no idea why this was taken down and then put back up," she said. [CORRECTION: Turns out I misunderstood the particulars.] Here's what Abdulla wrote me to clarify: "The video I posted did not reappear. It disappeared forever. What reappeared was technically other video clips of the same content. People re-posted the video (and other clips including the same content) from their hard disks, from YouTube, etc... and these videos were then re-posted on Facebook. But the original video that disappeared never reappeared."

In 2009, Abdulla wrote a prescient article for the Egyptian journal Democracy, called "How Online Social Networking Systems Create Virtual Political Entities: The Federal Democratic Republic of Facebook." In it, she argued that these sites "sites have created a sense of commonality and belonging among their members analogous to feelings of patriotism and belonging to a nation. The freedoms afforded by these websites have also enhanced these feelings, making these virtual nations a place where members can roam freely without worrying about the restrictions their own countries and political systems might be imposing on them."

Abdulla describes eloquently how the relative freedom of association on Facebook contrasted with the experience of her young Egyptian peers in other parts of civil society, creating " a much needed public sphere where citizens 'meet' to mingle and discuss issues that matter to them.

Facebook actually came to the limelight in Egypt as a result of one such group, that of the “April 6 Strike” created by Israa Abdel Fattah in 2008 to call for a strike on that day in solidarity with the workers of Al Mahalla Al Kobra, who were planning to strike in demand for higher wages. While the Facebook “government” did not mind the creation of the group or the more than 70,000 users who joined, in the non-Facebook world, Israa was detained by police forces for more than two weeks after having formed that group. The youths who joined the group, while afforded this freedom to associate by the Facebook government, were smeared by a media campaign in Egypt that accused them of being everything from a “fifth column” to “a bunch of crazy, disoriented kids.”

So the question becomes: Does the Republic of Facebook offer more democracy to its people than some of our own Arab governments? And could this be one reason why Arabs flock to Facebook and other social networking sites, where they can enjoy any activity they so please without much censorship or interference from Facebook officials?

But now people like Abdulla and other Egyptian democracy activists are asking important questions about just how far freedom of speech and association go on Facebook. Today, Mike Giglio of Newsweek has a must-read article on The Daily Beast that explores in great detail the complicated relationship between Facebook executives, NGOs and human rights activists in Egypt. Using emails that he was given by Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian democracy activist living in Washington, D.C., Giglio shows how Richard Allan, Facebook's director of policy for Europe, worked behind-the-scenes to help activists like Wael Ghonim keep their Facebook pages up during the past few months of turmoil.

After Ghonim's "We Are All Khalid Said" page was taken down by Facebook in November, just as the Egyptian elections were taking place, Allan pitched in with a nimble solution. “There is no discretion here as the creation of fake accounts threatens the integrity of our whole system,” he wrote Ghonim. “People must use the profile of a real person to admin the page or risk it being taken down at any time. It is not important to us who that real person is as long as their account appears genuine. So if they can offer a real person as admin then the page can be restored.”

Wahab gave her user name and password to Ghonim, and thus he was able to restore the page. But Giglio reports that Wahab is still frustrated by the ad-hoc nature of Facebook's help. "Facebook helped. But it was almost like they were hesitant to help. They don’t understand, or they didn’t understand, the power of Facebook in all this,” she told him. “I think it’s unfortunate that you have to have a title to get Facebook’s attention.”

Giglio also reports that unlike Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, Facebook hasn't yet designated executives to deal with human rights problems. Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman--a longtime friend of PdF who has worked hard on these issues--commented to him: “The fact that it works that way shows the inadequacy of the system … They’re trying to figure out after the fact how to construct a process. And they’re doing it in a moment when things are crazy.”

Company insiders admitted to Giglio that Facebook's internal process for handling complaints when a page is taken down or other content removed could be a lot smoother. “The appeals process is probably not as well defined and staffed as it should be. It may take a couple of weeks to get to a human,” one former official told him. “You do catch things that you’d probably rather not catch in that mix, too.”

The larger problem is, obviously, that while Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency, it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values. The former Facebook official told Giglio: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”

As a result, there's no telling exactly why the video of that protester being killed disappeared and then reappeared on Rasha Abdulla's Facebook page.

This messy state of affairs inside Facebook can't stand the test of current events. Young people using the site as a "democratic republic" need to know that their rights will be protected--including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations. Or else the nascent "democratic republic" that Abdulla envisions will turn into a banana republic--if it isn't one already.