Argument

Freedom #Fail

Why we shouldn't expect Facebook and its Silicon Valley peers to act in the world's best interests.

Last week, Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner accidentally made news. Asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter how the social networking giant, which is trying to break into the Chinese market, would navigate a country whose government is famously skittish about unfettered information exchange, Conner replied, "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

Conner's statement shocked many observers, but perhaps it shouldn't have. Lauded as a tool of revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook has surely provided a unique platform for mobilization. And yet, Facebook regularly comes under scrutiny for privacy and free expression violations and, unlike Silicon Valley peers such as Twitter and Google, has itself shied away from recognition as a political tool. Most recently, after pressure from an Israeli minister, Facebook staff began monitoring a page calling for a third intifada in Palestine, eventually taking the page down, claiming that it contained incitement to violence.

That same week, Facebook hosted a virtual "town hall" with President Barack Obama, in which curious citizens could ask the president questions (selected by Facebook staffers) or just follow along at home (if they were willing to sign up for a Facebook account and "like" the event's page). By choosing Facebook, Obama's team implicitly endorsed a company whose actions, in China and elsewhere, run counter to the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-remarked-upon January 2010 speech on the subject. And while a town hall is usually a public meeting, Facebook is not a public space, even if its more than 500 million users treat it like one -- it is a privately owned enterprise with the freedom to do whatever it wants, be it mining user data to sell to advertisers or deleting pictures of your friends and family on a whim.

The Obama campaign's choice of venue spoke volumes about the assumptions that people now make about the social media tools that have increasingly permeated our lives -- and Conner's comments are a reminder of why those assumptions are no longer enough. Corporations can and do act in a manner that upholds the principles of Internet freedom that Clinton and others have articulated. The problem lies in figuring out what to do when they don't -- and when the U.S. government chooses to ignore such failures.

One of the first inklings that a globalized Internet was going to pose these sorts of thorny ethical dilemmas arrived in 2000, when then-dominant tech giant Yahoo was taken to court in France for allowing the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. After various proceedings, Yahoo ultimately backed down, choosing to ban items associated with hate groups. The lesson? It is often easier to appease a foreign government than to fight it in the global commons.

U.S. tech companies, particularly those that host user-generated content, have walked a fine line ever since: Censoring content brings the wrath of free expression advocates, while, as Google learned in China, not censoring is the fastest way to lose a conservative emerging market. Some companies have leaned toward a principled stance, others choose to comply with government demands, and still others filter content of their own accord.

In 2006, Google consented to appeasement when it launched Google.cn in China. Caught between a rock and a hard place -- the prospect of losing an emerging market on one hand and of going against the company's "don't be evil" mantra on the other -- Google weighed its options and decided that while filtering search results compromised Google's overall mission, failing to provide search capabilities to a fifth of the world's population compromised its mission more severely. But four years later (and nine days before Clinton's remarks on Internet freedom), Google had a change of heart: Noting the global debate centered on free expression and increasing Chinese repression, the company announced it would stop filtering content, a policy shift that effectively ended Google's business in China. The change followed a series of attacks on critical Google infrastructure -- some of them targeting Chinese human rights activists -- that the company suspected had been committed by the Chinese government.

In her January 2010 speech, Clinton referenced Google's China conundrum, noting that U.S. companies have taken steps to make free expression online a greater consideration in their business decisions. And indeed they have; in September of that same year, Google hosted a conference in Budapest on Internet freedom, bringing together experts and activists from around the globe. Google has also worked toward greater transparency, offering up an interactive map showing government requests for removal of content or user information.

The Mountainview-based giant has since been joined by Yahoo and Microsoft in forming the Global Network Initiative (GNI), whose stated aims of protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy online have earned plaudits from the State Department. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's last-ditch attempt to quash the nascent Egyptian revolution with an unprecedented Internet shutdown in January brought a dose of moral clarity to the issue and prompted technology companies to rapidly innovate. Twitter and Google built Speak2Tweet in a weekend, allowing Egyptians to call a number and share news. Facebook had similarly responded to government meddling in Tunisia by quickly making HTTPS -- a secure access protocol -- available to users there, more than a month before unveiling the feature site-wide.

But other companies have made very different calculations. Take Microsoft, for example, whose Bing search engine emerged in 2009 as a serious competitor to Google. But unlike Google, Bing automatically enforces safe search on users who set their home base to one of several countries, among them India, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and the entire Arab world. Flickr, the photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo, recently came under fire for deleting a series of photographs posted by Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy. The images of state security officers had been retrieved from Amn El Dawla, the Egyptian security apparatus, and contained no offensive content. Flickr's justification? El-Hamalawy hadn't taken the photos himself, therefore they were in violation of the site's terms of use.

How do you ensure that online enterprises err on the side of free expression? Legislation is one option. The Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would bar U.S. companies from aiding the censorship and surveillance operations of repressive foreign governments. The bill -- which Smith first proposed in 2007 and revived in late 2009 -- seems unlikely to reach the floor of the House of Representatives anytime soon. But while the legislation is imperfect -- among other things, it would limit companies from hosting sensitive user data in "internet-restricting countries," which could discourage investment in certain places -- it would go a long way toward preventing companies from violating human rights. The companies, of course, would rather police themselves, and multi-stakeholder initiatives like the GNI are an effort to do that. But while the GNI has benefited from working closely with human rights organizations, it has had limited success in bringing new companies on board.

American companies ultimately have a tough choice to make: Uphold American values and the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Clinton, or focus on the bottom line. And as Facebook's calculations on China show, until external enforcement measures exist, they are all too likely to choose the latter.

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

A Bad Deal

Why Palestinian unity won’t lead to peace.

On Wednesday, representatives of Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, announced in Cairo that they had suddenly reached a reconciliation agreement. The emerging deal, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian unity government to pave the way for elections within a year, has a lot to do with the Palestinians' drive to gain the U.N. General Assembly's backing this September for the establishment of an independent state.

But the world should not cheer this bargain. Although the agreement may solve some of the short-term problems of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's statehood drive, it will create larger problems that promise to doom the plan to irrelevancy -- and make a historic peace agreement with Israel far less likely.

Abbas's plan suffers from a fundamental misconception -- that the General Assembly has any authority to decide about the existence of new states. In fact, the assembly only has the power to make a non-binding recommendation to the world community that a Palestinian state should be established; Abbas would then have to actually declare a state and, by doing so, set the stage for gaining formal recognition by the major powers of the world.

What are the outlines of the new Palestinian state Abbas is hoping the international community will endorse? By all accounts, Abbas would like a U.N. resolution to delimit the borders of his new Palestinian state; in this context, he will seek control not only of the entire West Bank but the Gaza Strip as well. However, since Hamas's violent takeover in 2007, Abbas has been powerless in Gaza -- a fact that has complicated international recognition of Abbas's authority. Presumably, Abbas hopes to address that problem by merging Hamas with his Ramallah-based government.

But Abbas's reconciliation with Hamas contains more risks than it does advantages. Hamas is designated as an international terrorist organization not only by Israel, but also by Canada, the European Union, and the United States. Moreover, it serves as a proxy force for Iran, which provides Hamas with funding, training, and weapons. So even though the Palestinians can always depend on the Non-Aligned Movement bloc for 120 or 130 General Assembly votes, these facts will imperil the Palestinians' ability to gain the backing of major Western powers, including the EU countries.

Since coming to power in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept the conditions of the Quartet -- the Middle East contact group that includes the United States, the U.N., the EU, and Russia -- for becoming part of the diplomatic process: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and accepting past agreements. Mahmoud al-Zahar, the senior Hamas leader who participated in the Hamas-Fatah talks, clarified after the agreement was reached: "Our program does not include negotiations with Israel or recognizing it." As recently as April 17, Hamas's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, reminded its supporters on its website: "We are going on the path of jihad." Hamas's intractability will no doubt jeopardize European diplomatic support for the Palestinian statehood drive, as well as financial assistance for any Palestinian government in which Hamas plays a role.

These concerns come on top of other serious European reservations. For example, the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo II, clearly established: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations." The EU signed Oslo II as a witness. If the EU supports the Palestinian initiative at the U.N., it will be violating a core commitment of the peace process, which is that the territories' fate should be determined only by direct negotiations between the parties.

The problems with including Hamas don't stop there. Abbas's hope is that a General Assembly resolution will reference the pre-1967 boundaries, which have assumed almost holy status among Palestinians. (Never mind that these were only armistice lines from the 1948 war, and were not regarded as final political borders.) In Jerusalem, the pre-1967 line will put the entire Old City, with its holy sites, like the Western Wall, under Palestinian control. Israelis will not agree to such a division of their capital in any case, but will European governments risk putting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under a regime even partly controlled by Hamas? They know that many members of Gaza's small Christian community have been seeking refuge abroad in order to flee Hamas rule.

The last time Abbas co-governed with Hamas was after the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, which Hamas won. By June 2007, their power-sharing arrangements broke down and Hamas overthrew Abbas's forces in the Gaza Strip. Israel is concerned that, in the aftermath of their new agreement, Hamas will try to exploit Abbas's weakness and take over the West Bank as well. If, under the agreement, the Palestinian Authority releases Hamas operatives from its prisons in the West Bank and at the same time calls off security sweeps against Hamas, the terrorist group's power in the field will undoubtedly rise. And what will happen to the Palestinian security forces that were trained by the United States and Jordan and have been acclaimed in the West in recent years?

Abbas needs to choose his priority: working with Hamas, or working with Israel. Faced with the departure of his old regional ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's parent organization, Abbas appears to be recalculating his interests. He must also make a final decision about how to proceed in dealing with his differences with Israel -- through unilateral action that seeks to mobilize support at the United Nations, or by sitting down and negotiating with Israel, as past agreements require.

The pathway to peace is open. But by reaching out to Hamas, Abbas has plainly moved even further away from it.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images