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Friday, February 25, 2011

It was unclear whether Facebook would help.


Emails obtained by The Daily Beast show that Facebook executives took unusual steps to protect the identity of protest leaders during the Egypt uprising. Mike Giglio on how the social media giant scrambled to keep pace with Egypt's revolution.
As unlikely protests swept across Egypt on January 25, an administrator from the Facebook page that was helping to drive the uprisings emailed a top official of the social network, asking for help.
The popular page had sounded the call for the protests 10 days earlier. It then became an online staging ground for the budding movement, beaming a constant barrage of news and updates to the walls of its 400,000-plus fans, along with impassioned pleas for people to join.

Protests swelled into the night. The We Are All Khaled Said administrator worried that the Mubarak regime, clued in to the page’s importance, might respond with a cyber attack—to bring down the page or, worse, uncover the anonymous people running it.
It was unclear whether Facebook would help.
The page, titled “We Are All Khaled Said” in remembrance of an Alexandria man murdered by police last summer, was founded it June and snowballed into one of Egypt’s most influential activist sites. In November, as parliamentary elections approached, the page prepared to encourage its fans to document what was expected to be a heavily-rigged vote. But, on election day, the page went down. And that was when Facebook became embroiled in what would eventually become Egypt’s revolutionary push.
Email records obtained by Newsweek, conversations with NGO executives who work with Facebook to protect activist pages, and interviews with administrators of the We Are All Khaled Said page reveal the social media juggernaut’s awkward balancing act. They show a company struggling to address the revolutionary responsibilities thrust upon it—and playing a more involved role than it might like to admit.
“There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off,” says a former company official.
Article - Giglio FacebookAP Photo
On the night of January 25, Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, responded to the worried administrator. “We have put all the key pages into special protection,” he wrote in an email. A team, he said, “is monitoring activity from Egypt now on a 24/7 basis.”
Allan, 45, is member of Britain’s House of Lords and was a Liberal Democrat MP from 1997 until 2005, when he ran the campaign of current deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, before taking a position with tech giant Cisco. During his time at Cisco, he chaired an Internet task force for the U.K. government. Friends at the company jokingly refer to him as “Lord Allan.”
Allan, who declined to comment for this story, joined Facebook in June 2009. In an August interview with the Financial Times, he listed among his responsibilities dealing with censorship, freedom of speech and privacy, as well as promoting Facebook for public use. “Richard has a great and wonderful passion for both politics and what companies can do in politics,” says a former Facebook official who asked not to be named discussing his old company.
Facebook insists that all users, from Lady Gaga to Burmese dissidents, use their real names, which has obvious drawbacks for people agitating in repressive countries. The network’s terms of service are available in only seven languages (and not in Arabic), which breeds confusion. (The help site, however, is available in more than 20 languages.)
Regimes have used the terms of service against users, bringing down sensitive pages at key moments, such as the early stages of a protest push. A clever cyberthug can discover when a fan page is being run by a pseudonymous account, and send in a well-tailored complaint that forces the hand of Facebook’s automated servers. Emails to the company’s generic appeals address can take weeks to receive a response. “The appeals process is probably not as well defined and staffed as it should be. It may take a couple of weeks to get to a human,” the former official says. “You do catch things that you’d probably rather not catch in that mix, too.”
And in the past, activists complained that when problems arose at sensitive times, they had little idea who to contact. U.S.-based NGOs such as Freedom House and the CPJ keep in regular touch with tech companies and the on-the-ground activists who use their services, acting as advisers and facilitators.
The structure at Facebook, though, was difficult for outsiders to discern. “It used to be Kremlinology,” says Danny O’Brien, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Internet advocacy director. “You’d sit there and you’d try to work out someone who could talk to someone else who could talk to someone else. … We all have stories of trying to catch Facebook’s eye.”
Last September, Allan traveled to Budapest for a Google conference on freedom of expression on the web, which was crowded with prominent net activists, as well as Egyptian cyberdissidents. There, Allan said that human rights concerns could be directed to him.
While this role is one of many, and remains loosely defined—“Richard doesn’t hold the switch. He has the ability to email the people who hold the switch,” the former Facebook official says—Allan has since developed into a crucial back channel into Facebook’s inner workings, particularly for the developing situation in the Middle East.

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