Facebook Placed Egyptian Protest Page Under 'Special Protection'

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The social networking company is slowly coming to terms with its role as a political organizing platform

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Facebook took an active role in protecting Egyptian protesters' pages, according to emails obtained by the Daily Beast. And the company's director of policy for Europe, Richard Allan, has become a "crucial backchannel" between activists in the Middle East and North Africa and Facebook.

I think Mike Giglio's story will be seen as important evidence that Facebook is slowly taking responsibility for its existence as a political organizing platform. The company, unlike Twitter, has been reluctant to insert itself into what are seen as "political" battles, but that's becoming increasingly difficult as the site becomes actually important for activists.

"There's a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you're operating a neutral platform," a former Facebook employee told Giglio. "People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there's also a desire to not get shut off."

So, the company has developed workarounds. In one e-mail, Allan assured activists that Facebook had "put all the key pages into special protection," though we do not know exactly what that means.

Activists have also long wanted to have pseudonymous profiles, which the company has fought. But the Beast article describes a workaround engineered by Allan that allowed pages like the influential "We Are All Khaled Said" to remain up. Allan wrote in an e-mail to a activist:

There is no discretion here as the creation of fake accounts threatens the integrity of our whole system. 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.

So, a real person, Nadine Wahab, became the titular administrator of the group and then passed that login information to activists, so they could actually run the site.

Engineers love the idea of neutrality and objectivity. But when real situations involving real people and movements arise, it's not so easy to stick with that value, or even to know what "neutrality" would look like.

The gymnastics of the Facebook's recent dealing remind me of a 1995 paper written by science and technology studies scholar Melvin Kranzberg. He proposed a series of "laws" and this was the first:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

Perhaps Facebook could have stayed neutral if it had been solely used by privileged college kids, but as its deployed around the world, local users are adapting it to meet their challenges, which are often larger than finding someone to make out with. Or as Kranzberg puts the case generally:

[T]echnical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.
Image: Associated Press.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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