Thursday, July 15, 2010

Facebook under the political spotlight

Facebook the popular social networking site is under fire once again after users began to use the platform for posting tributes to the murderer Raoul Moat. Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the website and those who were setting up Moat to be a hero. During Prime Minister's Question Time Conservative MP, Chris Heaton-Harris urged David Cameron to contact Mark Zuckerberg to ask the company to take down the Raoul Moat tribute webpage, which he said carried a "whole host of anti-police statements".

Cameron said that was a "very good point" and went on to question the use of Facebook to sympathise with a "callous murderer". "As far as I can see, it is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer – full stop, end of story – and I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. There should be sympathy for his victims and for the havoc he wreaked in that community. There should be no sympathy for him."

Facebook has refused to take down the "RIP Raoul Moat You Legend" group, and others paying tribute to the killer, saying its users were entitled to freedom of speech. More than 37,000 people had joined one of the tribute pages by Wednesday morning. Heaton-Harris who had been contacted by the social networking website said, "This guy wasn't a hero, he was a murderer. Some of the comments being made on Facebook are frankly disgusting. Companies like Facebook have a responsibility to the people that use them and to society more broadly. They must understand how angry many people will feel that they are hosting these sorts of comments."

Kelly Stobbart, 27, the half-sister of the woman shot by Moat, Samantha Stobbart, also joined the condemnation. "How can someone say something like that, after what he did? It's disgusting," she said.

Home Secretary Theresa May questioned why there was so much sympathy for Moat while the victims he killed or maimed were being ignored. PC David Rathband who was shot in the face was severely injured and is unlikely to ever see again [Sky News]. Meanwhile Samantha Stobbart's boyfriend, 29 year old karate instructor Chris Brown now lies dead.

Similar tributes in the past

It is not the first time that tributes have been made to killers. In 1966 Harry Roberts killed 2 policemen after being stopped by police. While condemned by most, some took to putting Roberts on a pedestal and a song came about, often heard at football matches of the day. Sang to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" a popular chant ran with the words, "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend. Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers. Let him out to kill some more, kill some more, kill some more, let him out to kill some more, Harry Roberts".

Armed robber George Davis also gained notoriety and widespread support. There were long campaigns by friends and supporters to free him from prison after what was seen as a wrongful conviction for an armed robbery. All over London "George Davis is innocent OK" could be seen sprayed on bridges and walls, and he was also immortalised in a song by the group Sham 69 called "Tell us the truth".

With the advent of the Internet, such debates and campaigns can grow faster. And as distasteful as such things maybe, many argue that to curtail such forums would infringe the right to freedom of speech. But with controversial views being aired, Facebook has drawn strong criticism.

Criticism of Facebook

In 2009, Facebook received criticism for including Holocaust denial groups. Barry Schnitt, a spokesman for Facebook, said, "We want Facebook to be a place where ideas, even controversial ideas, can be discussed." While Facebook's terms of use include the warning that users may "be banned if they post 'any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable,'" Schnitt said, "We can't guarantee that there isn't any content that violates our policies."

There have been some concerns expressed regarding the use of Facebook as a means of surveillance and data mining. In addition there are an ever growing number of instances of cyberbullying, stalking and even cases of murder [Criticism of Facebook].

Such concerns have been cited as reason to ban or censor the social networking site. It has been blocked intermittently in several countries including Pakistan, Syria, China, Vietnam, and Iran. It has also been banned at many places of work to discourage employees from wasting time using the service. In China authorities say that such sites could compromise national security.

Bans on social websites

Social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned in China by the ruling communist regime. And now their top-think tank is calling them potential risks to national security. The state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences [CASS] published their "Report on the Development of China's New Media 2010." It acknowledges the growing popularity of social-networking sites, and says, "Some Web sites including Facebook, which are utilized by intelligence agencies in the Western countries, caused people to fear their specific political functions." [NTDTV]

Of course, many claim that Chinese authorities are more concerned that social networking sites might be used to discuss banned subjects or organise dissent. In Iran for example both Twitter and Facebook were widely used during anti-government demonstrations before being blocked by the government.

In the west, governments are wary of using powers to ban or block websites. Such bans would anger groups advocating freedom of speech and would be likely criticised as being draconian. However, laws do exist that could be used to stop sites like Facebook. The site has been successfully sued several times for violation of intellectual property rights, and in Britain a law could cite this as reason enough to block the website. In clause 8 of the Digital Economy Act it states, "The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make provision about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright."

The definition of "a location on the internet" where copyright violation might have occurred, or might occur in the future, is not clear. However, it could easily be applied to such sites as YouTube, BitTorrent, DailyMotion, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and Google, all sites already severely impeded in China and other nations.

It is perhaps unlikely that such restrictions will be implemented, but the fact that provisions have been put in place has caused some alarm amongst civil rights activists. The Labour MP John Hemming protested that the clause could mean the blocking of the whistleblower site Wikileaks, which carries only copyrighted work. Stephen Timms for the Labour government said that it would not want to see the clause used to restrict freedom of speech. However, he gave no assurance that sites like Wikileaks would not be blocked.

Freedom of speech, if abused, may well give excuse to authorities to exert their hand of control. The Raoul Moat tribute has created a furore in the media, especially in papers like the Daily Mail and the Sun which called on its readers to leave tributes for the wounded PC. Most publications have fallen short of calling for a ban on Facebook. The Scottish Herald editorial said that the website should just moderate its content better.

"The internet is immensely difficult to police. It provides a haven for the demented and the conspiracy theorist," the paper says, "Facebook is, on balance, right not to remove the page as the site encourages public debate (this is not, after all, China). But it must be held to account on the guarantee to act, if warranted, when people report material they find offensive.Some have even called for action to be taken against the site."

Indeed Britain is not China, not yet. But in a Memorandum by the World Press Freedom Committee, Richard Winfield and Kristin Mendoza ask the question, Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image? [PDF].

In short, exports do not only extend to sock, shoes, toys and cheap electronics. China also exports Internet censorship technology and expertise to several countries. In addition the report claims China wishes to influence other countries. China is lobbying in the international arena for greater control over Internet resources, adoption of its proposed Internet norms, and acceptance of its practices. China's Internet policy is reflected in a statement by Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he said he aimed to "purify the Internet environment".

In fact China is among the leaders in lobbying for a UN organization to take over regulation of the Internet from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Many other countries have supported this proposal, including the European Union and Brazil, the site of an important Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting in November 2007.8 This proposal alarms human rights advocates who have seen the negligent attitude of the UN toward human rights abuses, and those who fear that governments who censor the Internet and imprison cyber-dissidents and journalists will be in charge of the flow of online information. So more bans on sites like Facebook may not be so far off.

As for the offending page on Facebook, the person who created it, Siobhan O'Dowd, shut it down on Thursday afternoon. She told Talksport's Ian Collins that she did not expect the reaction that followed, but insisted that everyone had the right to express their point of view. She did not reveal what prompted her to remove the page however [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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