[IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right? Egypt-and-Tunisia-transform-social-media.

Han-Teng Liao hanteng
Thu Feb 10 07:19:23 EET 2011

Hello Everyone who follows this thread of discussion on the current western
(or American) association of human rights with social media such as

I sense that Michael is getting clearer in his assumption/concern about the
line between the public and private whereas Lisa focuses more on freedom of
expression and freedom of association.  However, I do not see the difference
between Michael and Lisa's perspective is between the policy vs human
rights.  To me the public/private can be very theoretical and normative and
the human rights perspective can be pragmatic, practical and policy oriented
as well.

It seems to me it come down to the point where people have different
starting point and perspective to foster freedom of expression and
association.  In a society where private ownership is dominant, perhaps the
line between public and private may become an important indicator.  In a
society where the elements of society are deliberately divided and
disconnected by the authority under the pretense of "public good", "public
security" or "national interest", the private sometimes provide more
opportunities for non-official public discussion.

May I suggest to look at the case of China and social media as a difficult
case in Micahel's perspective.  When Micahel asks whether facebook is a
human rights, he seems to criticize the easy association between facebook
and human rights.  What if Egypt has its own facebook?  China, for example,
has facebook-like alternative social media such as "Renren", etc.  One can
easily put these social media sites into various narratives for their own
political goals.  For Chinese nationalist and/or pro-Beijing government
people, facebook can be seen as elements of cultural imperialist who do not
understand Chinese language, society, and of course way of governance.  To
them, human rights are used as a pretense for American multi-national to
erode their definition of Chineseness.  It can be seen as if the American
private company wants the Chinese market, using the US government, to
compete with "indigenous" social media companies, most of which (including
Renren) are not government or party-owned social media site, it is run by a
for-profit private company.  For more cosmopolitan and liberal elements in
China, they may generally like the idea that media ownership should be more
liberal in the sense that the government can have less economic and
editorial control over media, but they have different opinions on whether
Renren or facebook can promote their cause in China.

So the question whether facebook "is" human rights (in Egypt, China, etc.)
may be problematic simply because of the weak "linking" verb here.  The
easy/lazy association between facebook and human rights should be critiqued
both on normative and empirical grounds.  Though the perspective Michael
raises about the ownership may be one starting point, it may be not the most
dominant one in many societies where private and public ownership of media
have different historical meanings and implications.  In addition, the
private and public ownership can be easily compounded with national versus
western in certain post-colonial societies.

I still believe that the principles and practices of human rights (including
freedom of expression and association) are important.  However, to take it
forwards, I tend to think that one has to take into account how these
princples and practices are used and framed in certain narratives for
certain political purposes in certain context.  It does not mean that those
who are concerned in writing down some basic documents about these
principles should consider all these details in order to produce some
statement suitable for everyone.   That would be too demanding and
unrealistic.  It would be necessary, however, to consider how these
documents would be interpreted by imaginable adversaries (meaning the
authoritarian or nanny states) so that one can more easily provide some
counter-arguments from that very document.

Thatdocument would definitely help to answer "how" facebook or Renren can
"promote and/or discourage" the freedom of expression and assocition in

On Tue, Feb 8, 2011 at 1:04 PM, Michael Gurstein <gurstein at gmail.com> wrote:

>  Thanks very very much for this Lisa...
> I take all of your points and am really delighted that I was able to
> stimulate and provoke you to apply your knowledge and insight in directions
> where I was hoping they would go ;-)  The post wasn't meant to be definitive
> but rather to raise some questions in light of current events and hopefully
> to steer people towards reflecting on those issues in light of the Charter
> when we start releasing it for more general discussion.
> I think the more fundamental issue which is IMHO rather more policy than HR
> is what does the notion of the public good, the public interest, or public
> ownership/public space mean in the context of electronic/cyber space. The
> title of my blogpost was meant to be rather startling to raise precisely
> those questions.
> That's the issue that Parminder and to a more modest extent myself have
> been raising on the governance list and whether that's approached through HR
> (as for example,the applying HR in the private mall example) or more
> directly through global public policy and institutions is to my mind still
> an open question.
> BTW, it would be great if you could add your comments in the "comments"
> section on the blogpost... The post is getting a fair amount of exposure<http://www.realitysandwich.com/egypt_transform_social_media>so it would be great if your comments could add to the overall "public"
> discussion as well.
> Best and thanks again,
> Mike
> -----Original Message-----
> From: irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org [
> mailto:irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org<irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org>]
> On Behalf Of Lisa Horner
> Sent: Tuesday, February 08, 2011 8:32 AM
> To: 'irp at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org'
> Subject: Re: [IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right?
> Egypt-and-Tunisia-transform-social-media.
> Hi Mike
> This is a great post.  The private companies that host expression and
> association online are crucial actors in making sure that our rights are
> protected and fulfilled.  Just as the offline media have special protections
> but also responsibilities that stem from the central role they play in
> supporting free expression, so should online media.  What's tricky for me
> though is the question of how we balance the need for the Internet
> environment to be innovative and flexible, with the need to regulate to
> ensure that rights are protected by private intermediaries.  Would facebook
> and google have developed in the first place if they were under threat from
> human rights lawsuits?  Do we say that once a platform develops a critical
> mass of users/has a certain degree of influence, they have greater
> responsibilities?  Would it be possible to define that threshold?  I think
> we need to do a lot more thinking about corporate social responsibility from
> a human rights framework.  John Ruggie's
>   "protect, respect, fulfill" framework is useful...(companies have
> responsibilities to make sure they're not violating rights), but it's
> rendered fairly toothless when it's the governments themselves are
> committing rights violations via social media..
> On another note, I'd personally be wary about asking whether facebook
> itself (or social media more broadly) is a human right.  Expression and
> association are the rights, no matter where and how we exercise them.
> People taking a human rights-legal perspective often push back when we start
> talking about tools and instruments as rights, rather than as tools or
> spaces for exercising fundamental rights...and I find that these arguments
> distract from the fact that we're all fundamentally in agreement with each
> other about the basic points around expression and the role of the private
> sector online.  For me, human rights are those things that make us
> human...without them, we're being denied key aspects of our humanity.  I
> wouldn't say facebook is part of what makes me human, but I would say that
> the ability to communicate and assemble are.
> The most useful analogy I've heard is the notion of a public space or
> street.  Streets are public places and facilities that we all have a right
> to use.  I can exercise my right to peaceful assembly there, but there do
> have to be regulations about what is and is not permitted there so that we
> can all enjoy it and use it.  I think of internet spaces in the same way.
> But I guess what you're saying is that they're privately owned spaces, that
> are becoming crucial for exercising rights.  I guess the offline analogy
> would be a shopping mall...I may want to protest there because that's where
> most people are going to be.  But the owners of the mall have the right to
> monitor my movements and move me on, as it's a private space.  As long as
> there are also public places I can use, I guess I don't have a real problem
> with that.  So we need public rivals of facebook...or rather preferably open
> source, community owned spaces.  I'm interested in the new FOSS facebook
> alternative Diaspora.  ..I hope it takes off!
> Sorry for the rushed and delayed response....
> All the best,
> Lisa
> -----Original Message-----
> From: irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org [
> mailto:irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org<irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org>]
> On Behalf Of Michael Gurstein
> Sent: 04 February 2011 19:20
> To: IRP; governance at lists.cpsr.org
> Subject: [IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right?
> Egypt-and-Tunisia-transform-social-media.
> http://gurstein.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/is-facebook-a-human-right-egypt-and
> -tunisia-transform-social-media/
> Something a bit provocative from my blog.
> Comments/critique sincerely welcomed...
> Best,
> M
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