Facebook Redux

Last may, I discussed the downside to Web sites such as Facebook, (Facebook Nation) which has grown into a 500-million-strong social networking behemoth.

“ ‘Social Networking,’ ” I wrote, “that’s geek speak for sharing interests, photos and whatever-pops-into-your-head-at-any-given-moment to one or more individuals via the internet. (God forbid you should pick up a phone and/or actually interact with someone face to face.)”

I talked about the rise of cyber-bullying and that both kids and adults should carefully select which information they share and with whom.

Recently, Facebook has played an important role in uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protestors in Egypt used Facebook to not only rally supporters to their cause but organize meetings and announce gatherings.

However, in spite of all the change taking place in the Middle East, “Facebook does not want to be seen as picking sides for fear that some countries — like Syria, where it just gained a foothold — would impose restrictions on its use or more closely monitor users, according to some company executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal business,” The New York Times reports.

The popular site faces a dilemma all its own. Facebook has a firm policy whereby users are required to sign up using their real identities. Clearly, this presents problems for those organizing uprisings and wanting to topple governments.

“Facebook shut down one of the most popular Egyptian Facebook protest pages in November because Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who emerged as a symbol of the revolt, had used a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the administrators of the page, a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.

“With Egypt’s emergency law in place limiting freedom of speech, Mr. Ghonim might have put himself and the other organizers at risk if they were discovered at that time. Activists scrambled to find another administrator to get the page back up and running. And when Egyptian government authorities did figure out Mr. Ghonim’s role with the Facebook page that helped promote the Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir Square, he was imprisoned for 12 days.”

Imagine what steps the British government would have taken against protestors like Sam and John Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Washington had the Founding Fathers had access to Facebook. Imagine no Tea Party in Boston, perhaps no Lexington or Concord. How quickly would the British have jailed the protestors and caused the Colonists to rethink the whole idea of independence?

“…Senator Richard J. Durbin,” the Times wrote, “urged Facebook to take “immediate and tangible steps” to help protect democracy and human rights activists who use its services, including addressing concerns about not being able to use pseudonyms.

“In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, Mr. Durbin said the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia had highlighted the costs and benefits of social tools to democracy and human rights advocates. ‘I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments,’ Durbin wrote.”

More recently, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, citizens used social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have helped find friends, relatives as well as emergency resources.

“Twitter posted a guide,” The Times wrote, “for users in Japan over the weekend to help people get information and communicate as broadly as possible with friends and family in the earthquake’s aftermath, offering tips and resources in both Japanese and English.

“Google introduced its People Finder app that allows people, in both English and Japanese, to provide and exchange information on missing people. They also started a crisis response page, with Google maps and useful links to message boards and emergency information.”

This is the real genius behind social networking.  A low-cost tool that can literally save lives by bringing desperately needed help. Let’s just remember that, absent a crisis, we use this tool responsibly.

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