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Washington — Free speech advocates say that Facebook’s compliant stance is not necessarily related to the company’s recent public offering, which brought in $5 billion. Jillian York, Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to protecting Internet freedom, said Facebook’s calculations relate mainly to the social network’s aspiration to expand globally.
“They want to get into the Chinese market,” York said. “That is why Facebook is careful not to identify itself with the Arab Spring or any other kind of activism.”
The run-ins with authorities in Pakistan made the differences in approach between Facebook and Twitter crystal clear.
On May 20, Pakistani regulators shut down Twitter for eight hours after it refused to remove content promoting the third annual Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. The event was created in 2010 as a campaign supporting free speech after Muslims in some countries violently protested offending visual depictions of Islam’s founder. The Pakistani government asked Twitter to block all content advocating participation in the event, but Twitter turned it down, provoking Pakistan’s censorship. Despite this, at the end of the day, it was the Pakistani authorities that backed off and removed their block on accessing Twitter from within the country.
When Pakistan made the same demand of Facebook in 2010, Facebook agreed to take down the page promoting the event.
The contrasting responses highlight the fact that neither of the social media platforms seems to base its decisions on the religion of those offended. Their respective stances reflect broader social and economic outlooks.
Twitter has made its resistance against requests to provide information to government and police investigations part of its brand.
Under the 2002 USA Patriot Act, the government can issue secret requests, known as national security letters, demanding Internet carriers and social media platforms to provide information on users without a court order and without informing users that their personal information was shared with the government. Some 50,000 national security letters are issued annually and most go unknown. Twitter has been the only large provider to challenge the requests, demanding it be allowed to notify users when handing over their information to the government.
In recent months, Twitter has been battling in courts against an attempt by the Manhattan district attorney’s office to have the company provide three months of records on Malcolm Harris, a user who was active in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
The American Civil Liberties Union took on the case, stating that “Twitter should be applauded,” for rejecting government attempts to reach its users’ records.
But what wins applause from some is problematic for others. In their efforts to get Twitter to respond to their concerns, Jewish activists invoke the concept of “corporate responsibility.” It’s a voluntary standard, but one that is expected from large Internet and social media providers, and would rein in content deemed hateful on their platforms.
“Right now we are talking about conversations and work groups,” Lauter said when describing the tools used to convince companies like Twitter to take action. But other forms of pressure exist, including shareholder activity for publicly traded companies.
Jewish advocacy groups stress that limiting perceived hate on Facebook and Twitter is not a First Amendment issue, since there is no government intervention blocking free speech. But, at the EFF, York fears overuse of pressure. “My concern is that if they respond to the ADL, other groups will ask for other limitations,” she warned. “It is a slippery slope.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org