September 30, 2023

Ethical Quandary for Social Sites

“I thought I was being hacked,” said Mr. el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and human rights activist who had uploaded the headshots of the police from CDs found by activists early this month at the State Security Police headquarters in Nasr City.

He later learned in an e-mail from Flickr that the photos had been removed because he did not take the images himself, a violation of the site’s community rules.

“That is totally ludicrous,” he said. “Flickr is full of accounts with photos that people did not take themselves.”

Built as a platform for amateur and professional photographers to share their work, Flickr is among the social media networks, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that are increasingly being used by activists and pro-democracy forces especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

That new role for social media has put these companies in a difficult position: how to accommodate the growing use for political purposes while appearing neutral and maintaining the practices and policies that made these services popular in the first place.

YouTube was one of the first social media networks to wrestle with content posted by a human rights advocate that conflicted with its terms of service. In November 2007, YouTube removed videos flagged as “inappropriate” by a community member that showed a person in Egypt being tortured by the police.

They were uploaded by Wael Abbas, another Egyptian blogger involved in opposing torture in Egypt. After a public outcry, YouTube staff members reviewed the videos and restored them. The company, owned by Google, now has a process in place to deal with such questions.

Facebook has remained mostly quiet about its increasing role among activists in the Middle East who use the site to connect dissident groups, spread information about government activities and mobilize protests. But Facebook is now finding itself drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been pushed to defend its neutral approach and terms of service to some supporters of Israel, including an Israeli government official.

Yuli Edelstein, an Israeli minister of diplomacy and diaspora affairs, sent a letter last week to Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to remove a Facebook page created on March 6 named the Third Palestinian Intifada. The page, which calls for an uprising in the occupied Palestinian territory in May, has more than 240,000 members.

“As Facebook’s C.E.O. and founder, you are obviously aware of the site’s great potential to rally the masses around good causes, and we are all thankful for that,” Mr. Edelstein wrote. “However, such potential comes hand in hand with the ability to cause great harm, such as in the case of the wild incitement displayed on the above-mentioned page.”

Facebook has, so far, not removed the page. The administrators are not advocating violence, and therefore, it falls within the company’s definition of acceptable speech, company officials said.

“We want Facebook to be a place where people can openly discuss issues and express their views, while respecting the rights and feelings of others,” said Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for public policy at the company.

Human rights advocates have also criticized Facebook for not being more flexible with some of its policies, specifically its rule requiring users to create accounts with their real names. Danny O’Brien, the Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, cited the case of Michael Anti, an independent journalist and blogger from China whose Facebook account was deactivated in January because he had not used his state-given name to create it.

In addition to losing the ability to publish and communicate on Facebook, and not wanting to use his real name because of China’s strict rules governing freedom of speech and harsh response to those activists who violate them, he has lost the contact information for thousands of people in his Facebook community.

“One can’t expect all of these services to provide everything to everyone,” said Mr. O’Brien. “I think that part of the solution is to provide people with a dignified way of leaving the service.”

Since 2008, Mr. el-Hamalawy has been posting on Flickr photos of Egypt’s security police that he has taken at demonstrations. He found the site so useful he had even put together a manual in Arabic so that more people in the Middle East and North Africa could learn to use it effectively.

He uploaded the police headshots in the hope that more people would come forward with information about police members who had been involved in spying, abuse and torture to help bring them to justice and prevent them from taking new roles in the transitional government.

“We wanted to profile them and put their pictures up so that anyone with information could expose their crimes,” he said. “We don’t want any of those guys to be present in the post-Mubarak government.” He also said that the revolution is unfinished in Egypt: “If we don’t put any pressure on the streets or in cyberspace, we will not see prosecutions of these police officers happen.”

Ebele Okobi-Harris, the director of the business and human rights program at Yahoo, which owns Flickr, said that the case involving Mr. el-Hamalawy’s photos illustrated the challenges of balancing the existing rules and terms of service for users with the new ways that activists are using these tools.

“Flickr was set up as a community for people who love photography to share their photographs,” she said. “In this particular case, we had someone who wanted to use Flickr, not for photographs that he took, but for photographs that he found somewhere else. The community rules are about sharing your own content. You can’t upload photos that are not your own.”

Ms. Okobi-Harris acknowledged Mr. el-Hamalawy was correct in noting that Flickr’s community rules are not applied consistently. But the case has prompted internal discussions, she said, about whether Flickr should reconsider its approach.

“As the uses of these social networks evolve, we have to start thinking about how to create rules or how to apply rules that also facilitate human rights activists using these tools,” she said.

One challenge is whether a company should maintain its commitment to remain neutral about content, even when politicized content could offend users or even put people in danger. “Does a company take responsibility for the content?” Ms. Okobi-Harris asked. For instance, what would the company do if a group that opposes abortion wanted to post photographs of doctors who perform abortions?

Mr. el-Hamalawy said Flickr’s decision to take down the photos left him not only frustrated and angry but also terrified. “Everyone knew that I had released those photos,” he said. “Then the photos were gone. I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking that at any minute, they were going to come for me.”

After Flickr took down the photos, he received help from members of Anonymous, a loosely affiliated group of activist computer hackers, who helped use Picasa, Google’s photo system, to present the photos of the security police.

“I thought it was a good platform,” he said of Flickr. “Now, for me, it is an unethical platform, and I would not recommend it to anyone.”

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