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Durbin urges Facebook to adopt safeguards to protect human rights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2011 - WASHINGTON - With dissidents in Egypt and other repressive regimes increasingly using Facebook and other internet tools to spread the word about their gatherings and causes, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says the social networking firms need to do more to protect the rights of such activists.

Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs a Senate panel on human rights and the law, is urging Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to take "immediate and tangible steps" to help insulate human rights activists from being identified and investigated by government probes.

"Facebook has facilitated efforts by activists to organize demonstrations and publicize human-rights abuses," Durbin wrote in a letter sent Thursday. "At the same time, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments have reportedly used Facebook to monitor activists, which is surely aided by Facebook's refusal to allow activists to use pseudonyms."

The practice of using social-networking technology to track the activities of activists is not restricted to North Africa, Durbin said, citing Belarus, China and Iran as other countries whose secret police reportedly make use of such information. A Syrian activist recently called Facebook "a great database for the government," and a New York Times article recently noted that "the very factors that have brought Facebook and similar sites such commercial success have huge appeal for a secret police force."

Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, wrote that "recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have again highlighted the significant costs and benefits of social networking technology like Facebook to democracy and human rights activists.

"As millions of people around the world use Facebook to exercise their freedom of expression, I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments."

The Illinois senator said he worried that Facebook does not allow activists to use false names to protect themselves. But a spokesman for Facebook said Friday that Facebook has good reason for sticking with its "real name culture," and that the company tries to protect people around the globe who use its services.

"Facebook has always been based on a real name culture, and we fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service," said Andrew Noyes, the firm's manager of public policy communications.

Durbin also urged Facebook -- as he had two years ago -- to join the Global Network Initiative, which defines itself as a "group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the internet, communications and technology (ICT) sector."

The Global Network Initiative -- whose members include Google, Yahoo and Microsoft -- devised a voluntary "framework of principles" for internet and communications companies that Durbin said requires participant firms to take reasonable measures to protect human rights. "I believe that the Global Network Initiative has great potential to advance human rights if influential companies like Facebook sign up," he said.

As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Durbin held a hearing on internet freedom issues in 2008 -- receiving testimony from Google and Yahoo -- and urged those firms and others to form the Global Network group. Facebook officials declined to join the group or to testify at Durbin's followup hearing on internet freedom last year.

In a statement sent to the Beacon, Facebook spokesman Noyes said the firm "welcome[s] a continued dialogue with Sen. Durbin and others who have an interest in this issue. As Facebook grows, we'll absolutely be considering which groups we can actively participate in, but it's important to remember that our global operations are still small, with offices in only a handful of countries."

Noyes added that "the trust people place in us is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. As demonstrated by our response to threats in Tunisia, we take this trust seriously and work aggressively every single day to protect people."

An article in the January issue of the Atlantic magazine tells the story of how Tunisian activists used Facebook to spread the word about demonstrations but then feared that the government would use social networks to investigate them. The story details how Facebook's security team developed and implemented two technical solutions to block government access and help protect some of the activists.

Even so, the article quotes Facebook's security officer as saying, "When you step back and think about how internet traffic is routed around the world, an astonishing amount is susceptible to government access."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.