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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Facebook?

Although Facebook is probably known more as a threat to productivity stateside, Sacred Facts’s post surveying its censorship in a number of Middle Eastern countries hints that social networking sites may pose a unique and potent threat of democratization to repressive regimes. And given the presence of similar censorship extending to other social networks, it seems at least that the authorities of the censoring nations seem to agree.

Of course a number of the decisions to censor social networks, as well as to censor Web 2.0 technology more broadly, have been justified solely by the desire to keep out sexually explicit content. But that explanation, perhaps partially true in some instances, does not provide a complete account across the spectrum of censoring states, some of which have been open about targeting political speech. Nor does “protecting social norms” seem to be a default explanation for users targeted by this censorship.

When Syria recently decided to block access to Facebook without official explanation, reactions to the decision were varied.

Women’s rights advocate Dania al-Sharif suggested to Reuters, “Facebook helped further civil society in Syria and form civic groups outside government control. This is why it has been banned.”

In the same article, Ammar al-Qurabi, head of the National Association for Human Rights, suggested that the target was political content published by Syrians. Additionally, according to Reuters, he said “We have asked officials and they said Facebook could become a conduit for Israeli penetration of our youth, but the real reason for blocking the forum because it provides for criticism of the authorities.”

And at the Jerusalem Post, Calev Ben David suggests that Facebook was targeting because users “were able to communicate with the outside world free of their state’s pervasive censorship.”

In their new book, Access Denied, the Principal Investigators of the Internet and Democracy project (as well as the Open Net Initiative) Jonathan Zittrain and John G. Palfrey propose a number of possible goals for Internet censorship including,

o To create barriers to information for its own citizenry;

o To create barriers to communication between citizens within the regime;

o To create barriers to communication between its citizens and the outside world, perhaps to prevent negative information about the regime to spread;

o To send a message that surveillance is occurring;

o To maintain a monopoly of control on “cultural goods”;

o To maintain a monopoly of control over the development of civic society;

Admittedly the prospect that state censors will provide transparent accounts of their conduct or motivation is whimsical. Their goals may span that entire spectrum or may track more closely with a subset of them, and there is minimal incentive to be open. Highlighting acts and possible motivations of censorship help highlight possible paths to support democratization.

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