By Ian Rosoff
This week, President Obama was at the United Nations urging the countries who won democracy during the Arab spring to protect the right to free speech at all costs. His strong stance on freedom of speech was partly in response to the attacks and protests across the Muslim world over a video uploaded to YouTube degrading the Prophet Muhammad.
The power of the Internet to spread social media helped spur the initial revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya, and now a viral video that was partly circulated through social media has caused violent instability across many of those same countries. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have the capability to cause rapid change, but they can be double-edged swords.
So we took notice earlier this week when Facebook tested what people are referring to as the “Snitching App”.
Facebook strictly bans the use of accounts under pseudonyms. It spells this out in its terms and conditions, has said repeatedly that it wants a “real identity” culture on its site. Every social network has had to make a decision about whether to allow people to hide behind the veil of anonymity and Facebook and Google+ have notably taken a position on authenticating user identities.
This week users started seeing a Notification box asking them if people who are their friends on Facebook were using their real names. The app let’s you report or flag the fakers. Facebook says that the exercise wasn’t an effort to promote snitching but rather a data gathering project to help its algorithms identify fake names. Facebook says its not going to use the app as a way to actively enforce its username policies.
Facebook argues that real names keep users safe. Fake accounts are often used for illegal purposes. Many of the false names are spammers of course, but some genuinely need to use pseudonyms. Those hiding from stalkers or abusive exes for example, and then there are people who use fake accounts to circumvent governments that employ censorship, or even worse, target, harass and detain known dissidents.
Anonymity had other ancillary benefits for the Egyptian revolution. Google executive Wael Ghonim, credited with starting the “We are all Khalid Said” fan page that became one of the sparks for the Egyptian uprising in 2011 said,
“There was no discussion. I did not discuss anything with anyone about going to the streets on the 25th of January. It was just a very spontaneous action. And because of the nature of the Internet, people started to subscribe. And because I was anonymous at that time, no one felt someone was taking credit for this or was benefiting from this. It was just a random post in the cloud. Pretty much the same thing happened in every other country. Someone happened to set a date and people subscribed.”
The call for snitching doesn’t strike me as the right way to go about solving the problem of Facebook wrongdoers, but this policy has implications about privacy in a world that is embracing social media as a tool in politics. When activists in foreign countries use Facebook to spread messages and impact positive change they can’t be worried about snitching, or worry about their real name coming out and getting arrested. Ensuring civil rights and destroying the remnants of a police state are critical to the development of fledgling democracies. Facebook is growing quickly in nations that need exposure to free speech and their policies should reflect that.
So while the initial premise of Facebook’s “name policy” makes sense in a lot of ways, and they are probably doing this in order to test their own algorithms, the implications of a snitching program are far more insidious. Privacy has, and will continue to be a huge issue on the Internet and in Congress. The president is preaching free speech and freedom to the world, but part of what keeps free speech healthy is ensuring basic privacy.
Like freedom of speech, privacy comes at a cost. Sometimes the cost of privacy is safety. The truth is, government can’t create a world without risks and neither can Facebook. Ensuring freedoms doesn’t always make the world safer, but it does make it better.