Middle East Uprising: Facebook's Secret Role in Egypt
As unlikely protests swept across Egypt on January 25, an administrator from the Facebook page that was helping to drive the uprisings emailed a top official of the social network, asking for help.
The popular page had sounded the call for the protests 10 days earlier. It then became an online staging ground for the budding movement, beaming a constant barrage of news and updates to the walls of its 400,000-plus fans, along with impassioned pleas for people to join.
Protests swelled into the night. The We Are All Khaled Said administrator worried that the Mubarak regime, clued in to the page’s importance, might respond with a cyber attack—to bring down the page or, worse, uncover the anonymous people running it.
It was unclear whether Facebook would help.
The page, titled “ We Are All Khaled Said” in remembrance of an Alexandria man murdered by police last summer, was founded in June and snowballed into one of Egypt’s most influential activist sites. In November, as parliamentary elections approached, the page prepared to encourage its fans to document what was expected to be a heavily-rigged vote. But, on election day, the page went down. And that was when Facebook became embroiled in what would eventually become Egypt’s revolutionary push.
Email records obtained by Newsweek, conversations with NGO executives who work with Facebook to protect activist pages, and interviews with administrators of the We Are All Khaled Said page reveal the social media juggernaut’s awkward balancing act. They show a company struggling to address the revolutionary responsibilities thrust upon it—and playing a more involved role than it might like to admit.
“There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off,” says a former company official.
On the night of January 25, Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, responded to the worried administrator. “We have put all the key pages into special protection,” he wrote in an email. A team, he said, “is monitoring activity from Egypt now on a 24/7 basis.”
Allan, 45, is member of Britain’s House of Lords and was a Liberal Democrat MP from 1997 until 2005, when he ran the campaign of current deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, before taking a position with tech giant Cisco. During his time at Cisco, he chaired an Internet task force for the U.K. government. Friends at the company jokingly refer to him as “Lord Allan.”
Allan, who declined to comment for this story, joined Facebook in June 2009. In an August interview with the Financial Times, he listed among his responsibilities dealing with censorship, freedom of speech and privacy, as well as promoting Facebook for public use. “Richard has a great and wonderful passion for both politics and what companies can do in politics,” says a former Facebook official who asked not to be named discussing his old company.
Facebook insists that all users, from Lady Gaga to Burmese dissidents, use their real names, which has obvious drawbacks for people agitating in repressive countries. The network’s terms of service are available in only seven languages (and not in Arabic), which breeds confusion. (The help site, however, is available in more than 20 languages.)
Regimes have used the terms of service against users, bringing down sensitive pages at key moments, such as the early stages of a protest push. A clever cyberthug can discover when a fan page is being run by a pseudonymous account, and send in a well-tailored complaint that forces the hand of Facebook’s automated servers. Emails to the company’s generic appeals address can take weeks to receive a response. “The appeals process is probably not as well defined and staffed as it should be. It may take a couple of weeks to get to a human,” the former official says. “You do catch things that you’d probably rather not catch in that mix, too.”
And in the past, activists complained that when problems arose at sensitive times, they had little idea who to contact. U.S.-based NGOs such as Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists keep in regular touch with tech companies and the on-the-ground activists who use their services, acting as advisers and facilitators.
The structure at Facebook, though, was difficult for outsiders to discern. “It used to be Kremlinology,” says Danny O’Brien, the CPJ’s Internet advocacy director. “You’d sit there and you’d try to work out someone who could talk to someone else who could talk to someone else. … We all have stories of trying to catch Facebook’s eye.”
Last September, Allan traveled to Budapest for a Google conference on freedom of expression on the web, which was crowded with prominent net activists, as well as Egyptian cyberdissidents. There, Allan said that human rights concerns could be directed to him.
While this role is one of many, and remains loosely defined—“Richard doesn’t hold the switch. He has the ability to email the people who hold the switch,” the former Facebook official says—Allan has since developed into a crucial back channel into Facebook’s inner workings, particularly for the developing situation in the Middle East.
People such as Robert Guerra, who heads net advocacy at Freedom House and Danny O’Brien, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Internet advocacy director, have worked to build relationships with Allan in order to fast-track issues that need Facebook’s attention.
The Allan pipeline, activists say, came in the nick of time.
After receiving concerned emails from Guerra, O’Brien and others when the We Are All Khaled Said page went down in November, Allan responded quickly with a diagnosis: the page’s administrator had been outed for using a pseudonym. Refusing to budge on Facebook policy, Allan suggested a creative fix.
“There is no discretion here as the creation of fake accounts threatens the integrity of our whole system,” he wrote. “People must use the profile of a real person to admin the page or risk it being taken down at any time. It is not important to us who that real person is as long as their account appears genuine. So if they can offer a real person as admin then the page can be restored.”
Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian émigré and activist based in Washington, D.C., took on that role, passing her user name and password to Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was later unmasked as the creator of the We Are All Khaled Said page, and the page went on to document widespread fraud. That week it received 11,000 new fans.
The new arrangement served as a security blanket as the page became a key rallying point for the protests—as only Wahab could be uncovered if the page were hacked. So did the relationship with Facebook. Ghonim told Newsweek he had an “open line” of communication with Facebook during the protests. “Whenever anything happened, I called,” he said.
But Wahab—who provided the email conversations to Newsweek— remains frustrated that it took so much prodding to get the company to act. “Facebook helped. But it was almost like they were hesitant to help. They don’t understand, or they didn’t understand, the power of Facebook in all this,” she says. “I think it’s unfortunate that you have to have a title to get Facebook’s attention.”
As for the special security status Facebook gave the page, she says: “That’s their responsibility. They ask us to put our private information on their site. I think it’s their responsibility to keep it out of government hands.”
Ultimately, Egyptians remained in the streets for more than two weeks and ousted President Hosni Mubarak in what many came to call the “ Facebook Revolution.” As a pro-democracy upheaval rocks the Middle East, the social media giant has been receiving a steady stream of praise. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an impassioned speech about Internet freedom that was peppered with glowing references to Facebook.
Facebook officials, however, have shrunk from the spotlight. (“Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts,” read a recent headline in the New York Times.) The company has been particularly tight-lipped about what role, if any, its employees have played in the ongoing unrest in the Middle East. “The trust people place in us is the most important part of what makes Facebook work,” said communications manager Andrew Noyes in an emailed statement. “We take this trust seriously.”
Some analysts say Facebook has yet to come to grips with its new activist role. The ambiguity also has fueled suggestions that business interests in repressive countries—such as Syria, where Facebook recently regained access, or China, where it remains shut out—keep the company from embracing an activist image. “Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”
The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”
Complaints that Facebook is unprepared—or perhaps unwilling—to take on an activist role has led some prominent human-rights advocates to encourage cyberdissidents to avoid it. “I would recommend that activists find another platform for their activity,” says Jillian York, of Global Voices. Adds Guerra: “It’s not just a college kid’s web site. It’s real activists that are staking their lives for change.”
The still-disjointed chain of command, meanwhile, seems to indicate that Facebook is still in the process of figuring out its role at a sensitive time. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have designated executives to deal with human-rights concerns. “[Tech] companies operate in a very difficult and very complex environment,” says Ebele Okobi-Harris, the human rights director at Yahoo.” I think it’s very critical, in Yahoo at least, to have an organization, and people, and a person who are dedicated to these issues.”
Says Zuckerman: “The fact that it works that way shows the inadequacy of the system … They’re trying to figure out after the fact how to construct a process. And they’re doing it in a moment when things are crazy.”
In Tunisia, for instance, “Ali,” an anonymous activist who runs a Facebook fan page called SBZ News—named after Sidi Bouzid, the city where that country’s uprising first took hold—had no NGO connections. But he ran, anonymously, the main Facebook page that was providing news of that country’s revolution. Every time his page would grow in its following, it would get knocked down by Facebook. He says this happened five times.
Ali was running the page under a pseudonym with a wary eye to Tunisia’s notorious cyberpolice. Though fan pages such as his and Ghonim’s don’t show the administrator, that information can be found out if the page is hacked. Which is exactly what happened in Tunisia—the government was able to phish passwords of Facebook users. (Facebook responded by quickly rolling out a harder-to-crack https code.)
“When Facebook say that I've to use the real profile, what if the page was hacked? And there are some pages that were hacked by the cyberpolice. And some bloggers were arrested,” Ali says. “Just because I haven't used my real ID, [is the reason] I’m talking now to you.”
With his pages getting spiked, Ali sent an email to the appeals address. Three weeks later, he finally received an emailed reply, asking that he send a scanned copy of his passport, and getting him even more confused. "Are Facebook administrators not supposed to help us?” he asks. “Are they interested in our personal information more than supporting a revolution?”
Facebook has yet to answer the question.
Facebook has yet to answer the question. Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.