Archive for 20 September 2010

Choosing Evils

20 September 2010

I’m in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University– “Internet at Liberty 2010.” The highlight of this morning’s sessions was a “very short history of the internet and free expression” offered by Rob Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center; I’d commend you to read Jillian York’s liveblog of that session if you’re curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I’ll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the “arbiters of free speech” in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law– what’s free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group “Draw Mohammed Day.” Despite the Pakistani government’s demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content– the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding– including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they’re accessible in the U.S., Facebook won’t host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It’s certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what’s over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what’s the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary– Facebook, in this case– is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I’m looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis…

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today– AM 1500 in DC– talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)