Tyrants can use Facebook, too


There has been much talk lately about the “Facebook revolution” in the Middle East. But the rhetoric oversimplifies a more complicated reality.


The Internet has helped activists from Morocco to Iran organize demonstrations and publicize human rights abuses. The world had a front-row seat at the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This publicity likely helped restrain government crackdowns on protesters.


While the mainstream media has limited access to Libya during the current unrest, social media have provided an invaluable lifeline of information. The revolution may not be televised — but it is being tweeted.


It is important to remember that the Internet, like every sea change in communications technology does not inevitably lead to social progress. It is merely a tool for brave men and women willing to put their lives on the line to improve their lot.


TV broadcasts of Alabama state troopers beating protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge helped galvanize support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But it was John Lewis and his fellow marchers who had the courage to face the billy clubs, dogs and fire hoses — and the foresight to understand the impact of these images on America.


Similarly, Egyptian activists had the strategic vision to use Facebook to spread the word about a demonstration in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, and the fortitude to protest for the next 18 days. The Internet didn’t bring down the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian people did.


Technological advancement also has a downside. The Internet makes it easier for repressive regimes to crack down on dissidents. The Belarusian and Iranian governments have used what Internet expert Evgeny Morozov calls the “digital panopticon” created by social-networking technology to track down and arrest activists.


In China, Internet police monitor the Web, and the “Great Firewall” censors content.


As the world’s leading tech innovators, U.S. companies are at the vanguard of this brave new world. As chairman of the Senate human rights subcommittee, I’ve held hearings on the role of U.S. technology companies in protecting Internet freedom. I’ve written to dozens of companies about their human rights practices and heard testimony from Obama administration officials, technology companies and human rights activists from China and Iran.


With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry is failing to address serious human rights challenges. Filtering software produced by U.S. companies like McAfee — recently acquired by Intel — has been used by repressive governments to censor political content on the Internet. Cisco routers are part of the architecture of China’s Great Firewall. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo censor political content.


The Egyptian and Tunisian governments have reportedly used Facebook to monitor activists, aided by Facebook’s refusal to allow activists to use pseudonyms — a violation of the website’s terms of service. While Facebook’s service is available in 70 languages, its terms are available in only seven.


Many Arabic and Farsi users unknowingly violate Facebook’s terms of service because those terms are not in their languages. Repressive governments and their allies can shut down activists’ accounts by submitting complaints about violations of the terms of service.


A few companies have taken bold steps to protect human rights. In 2008, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo joined human rights groups in launching the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct that requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect human rights and submit to an independent assessment of their practices. The jury is still out on the initiative, but it has great potential to advance human rights if the principles are fully implemented and its membership is expanded.


U.S. technology companies allow millions around the world to express themselves more fully and freely. But the industry has a moral obligation to ensure that its products and services do not help repressive governments. If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, Congress must step in.