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Freedom #Fail - By Jillian C. York | Foreign Policy 2011-04-29


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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.

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