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Facebook Reluctant to Discuss Its Role in Middle East Protests

facebook graffiti in egypt
Just about everyone not named Malcolm Gladwell can agree that Facebook played a pretty integral role in recent protests across the Middle East. The company, however, doesn't seem very interested in talking about it.

According to the New York Times, Facebook's silence has more to do with business than sheer modesty. Although many have praised the social network as a critical mechanism of mobilization in Egypt and Tunisia, the company is apparently hesitant to celebrate its role out of fear that doing so may alienate users in other markets. If governments in neighboring Middle East countries thought that Facebook was "picking sides," they could retaliate by imposing restrictions or limiting access to the site within their borders.

At the same time, the company is sticking to its policy of requiring users to sign up using their real names. Last week, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to allow user pseudonyms as a way to protect political dissidents who use the site. Company spokeswoman Debbie Frost, however, says that the existing policy guarantees a safer online environment. "The trust people place in us is the most important part of what makes Facebook work," Frost said in a statement. "As demonstrated by our response to threats in Tunisia, we take this trust seriously and work aggressively every single day to protect people."

While Facebook did take proactive steps to help protesters in Tunisia after the government began hacking into user accounts, it still hasn't embraced activism with the same vigor that its competitors have. In Egypt, for example, Twitter and Google created speak2tweet, a service that allowed dissidents to circumvent the government's nationwide Internet shutdown. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone heralded the collaboration as a testament to his company's "mandate to protect our users' right to speak freely." Facebook, by comparison, has been reluctant to make similar declarations.

"This is an incredible challenge and an incredible opportunity for Facebook, Twitter and Google," said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It might be tougher for Facebook than anyone else. Facebook has been ambivalent about the use of their platform by activists." Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president for global communications, public policy and marketing, acknowledged the global significance of recent events in the Middle East, but downplayed the role that his company had in facilitating them. "We've witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country," Schrage said in a statement. "Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most."

Tags: activism, business, egypt, facebook, google, MarkZuckerberg, middle east, MiddleEast, politics, protest, SocialNetworking, top, Tunisia, twitter, Web