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

Michael Gurstein gurstein
Sat Feb 12 01:35:37 EET 2011


Thanks Lisa and Han-Teng for your very interesting comments.
I'm not really sure that I have anything useful to add except to point to a
comment that Slavoj Dzizek made in regard to Egypt and the various
commentators who questioned whether something like what happened could
happen in the Middle East.  His comment was that notions of Freedom and by
extension I think fundamental Human Rights are rather like Platonic forms
that is they are universal and underlie the various cultural instances in
which they may be found.  
I'm not sure how far I would want to push that argument but I would be
interested to hear the comments of others on that.
One implication of that position is I think that HR stands behind (or above)
such issues as difference in public or private ownership (and I guess
virtual or physical space) and would apply equally in all of these spheres.

-----Original Message-----
From: Lisa Horner [mailto:LisaH at global-partners.co.uk] 
Sent: Friday, February 11, 2011 2:49 AM
To: 'Han-Teng Liao'; Michael Gurstein
Cc: irp at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org
Subject: RE: [IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right?



I think Han-Teng raise some really interesting points here.  I've got my
Charter thinking hat on at the moment, and it's very true that we have to be
careful to consider how different principles and language might be
interpreted in different social and political contexts.  And indeed how
different issues play out in different places according to historical and
contemporary configurations of power, values, technology uses etc.  We
already had some comments in Vilnius about how the articles in the Charter
that attempt to spell out the limited circumstances that rights can be
restricted might be used as excuses/smokescreens to violate rights.  It's
tricky, but just highlights how tight the articles in the charter have to
be....and hopefully we can flesh the issues out a bit more through the
explanatory document that will accompany the charter.  Any help people can
give in looking at the articles that we have from different perspectives,
highlighting any dangers, would be much appreciated.


So far as public/private goes, there's not always a clear distinction
between the two.  I guess that's at the heart of the issue that Mike was
raising in his post....the internet and its applications are really blurring
the boundaries.  For me, human rights and "public interest" are different
but mutually supporting concepts or frames.  Policies that work in the
"public interest" must always take human rights into consideration....human
rights help to put boundaries or limits on the public interest (and vice
versa...within the strict limits of human rights law).  At the international
policy level, it seems crazy that the policy institutions (especially those
of the UN) aren't better linked into the human rights system.  


And to finish - a quick reminder about the call today at 3 gmt on the
Charter...hope people can make it!


All the best,



From: Han-Teng Liao [mailto:hanteng at gmail.com] 
Sent: 10 February 2011 05:19
To: Michael Gurstein
Cc: Lisa Horner; irp at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org
Subject: Re: [IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right?


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

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

Best and thanks again,


-----Original Message-----
From: irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org
[mailto:irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org] On Behalf Of Lisa
Sent: Tuesday, February 08, 2011 8:32 AM
To: 'irp at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org'
Subject: Re: [IRP] Blogpost: Is-facebook-a-human-right?

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,

-----Original Message-----
From: irp-bounces at lists.internetrightsandprinciples.org
[mailto: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?


Something a bit provocative from my blog.

Comments/critique sincerely welcomed...



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