At 6 p.m. Taipei time on Friday, June 1, Ho Tsung-hsun was suddenly shut out of his Facebook account. When he tried to log back in, a message in a red box announced: "This account has been disabled." Ho, a veteran activist and citizen journalist on environmental and social issues in Taiwan, immediately took a picture of the message, then wrote an angry blog post on a Taiwan-based citizen journalism platform. He insisted that he had not violated any of the site's community guidelines. Furthermore, he wrote, "the information I've collected and the Facebook groups that I've created and maintained all disappeared, which has caused inconvenience to my work and interpersonal relationships."
Later that night, Ho's account was restored -- also without explanation. As it turned out, a number of Taiwanese politicians and activists had all experienced similar problems on the same day. Angered by what seemed like an act of arbitrary punishment against people who were not violating the site's rules in any way that they themselves could discern, Taipei City Councilor Ho Zhi-Wei wrote an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook -- now a publicly listed company -- "certainly has public responsibilities for public welfare."
The incident underscored the extent to which people around the world have come to rely on Facebook for political activism and discourse -- from the Green Movement in Iran, to revolutionaries in Egypt, to U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. Facebook is not a physical country, but with 900 million users, its "population" comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people's online activities and identities.
In apparent recognition that it faces real human rights risks and responsibilities, Facebook recently became an observer member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting core principles on free expression and privacy in the Internet and telecommunications industries. Whether the company ultimately joins as a full member, committing to uphold these principles and be held publicly accountable to them, will be a key test of its core values. Meanwhile, the postings, pages, likes, and friend requests of millions of politically active users have helped to make Zuckerberg and colleagues very rich. These people are increasingly unhappy about the manner in which Facebookistan is governed and are taking action as the stakes continue to rise on all sides.
Facebook is blocked in mainland China, but is used heavily by the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Political activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan use Facebook as their primary tool to mobilize support for their causes and activities. On June 1, when scores of activists' accounts were deactivated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, outrage and conspiracy theories quickly spread across the Internet. Activists in Hong Kong suspected political foul play, given that their accounts were suspended just as they were organizing major protests to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Company executives insist that the suspensions were the result of internal computer and staff errors that had nothing to do with Chinese or Taiwanese politics. In a statement sent in response to journalists' queries, spokeswoman Debbie Frost explained:
"To protect the millions of people who connect and share on Facebook every day, we have automated systems and a dedicated team that reviews reports made by users in order to maintain a trusted environment and protect the nearly billion people that use our site. In this instance, we mistakenly took action on a number of accounts and temporarily suspended them. When this happens, we try our best to resolve the situation, apologize to those affected and make any necessary changes to our processes to help prevent such mistakes happening again. We have already remediated the majority of these accounts, and expect to complete the process soon."
That statement, however, was not posted anywhere on Facebook's Site Governance page or other pages used for corporate announcements to users -- nor was it sent to the users whose accounts were affected. Meanwhile, Ho in Taipei says that he received no explanation or apology.