Is Facebook a Human Right? Egypt and Tunisia Transform Social Media

Posted on February 4, 2011


Many are writing about the role of cell phones and Twitter, Facebook and other social media in enabling/precipitating the events in Tunisia and now in Egypt and possibly beyond. Clearly social media have a role, but precisely what and the extent is still to be worked through especially now that the events seem to have moved considerably beyond any, where a direct connection can be drawn to media and particularly since the temporary closure of the Internet and thus all interactive media by the Egyptian government.

But perhaps the most significant long term impact of social media use in the events is only now starting to emerge as the wondrous surprise of what we have been watching on CNN and Al Jazeera wears off, if only slightly, and we begin to reflect on how the world has changed.

That there will be many impacts some profound, many geo-political, even more unanticipated may be taken as a given.  However, perhaps we received a signal of what may be one of the be the most important of all as it will potentially impact the way in which our world creates values and works towards an implementation of our highest aspirations. If such an impact is occurring then the effect will not simply change how we do and can behave but also how our technologies are defined and determined and perhaps most importantly how our relationship to our technologies acts so as to reinforce our humanity.

As an evident response to the events in Egypt the following statement has been issued by a group of United Nations associated independent human rights experts through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Governments must pay more attention to people’s voices – UN experts

GENEVA (3 February 2011) – …Over the past several weeks, men and women in many countries, including Belarus, Egypt and Tunisia, have expressed grievances related to, among others… the denial of their right to participate meaningfully in decision-making, underscoring the indivisibility of all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social…We are alarmed at increasing limitations on the right to freedom of expression and information imposed by Governments actively seeking to suppress the rising number of voices who wish to be heard…We are disturbed at the major disruptions in communication networks and transmissions of news so essential to the modern world. The freedoms of peaceful assembly and association are among the most fundamental rights underpinning a democratic society.

Underneath the rather predictable headline to this press release, what is particularly interesting is the way in which the human rights notion of “freedom of assembly” – or as they phrase it in the above — “people’s voices” — appears by inference to be applied to freedom of assembly on the Internet, that is in this instance of course, referring to the freedom to express and assemble (and collaborate) by means of Facebook and to the freedom of expression via Twitter and YouTube.

The apparent extension and application of these human rights notions into the virtual sphere is an implicit acknowledgement of the equivalence and equivalent validity of those relations, activities and processes which are taking place in the virtual sphere; that is, is there any reason to see virtual connections and relationships as for example, via Facebook, Twitter or Facebook groups as being any different from the similar (or parallel) connections and relationships that individuals have in physical space? The implicit answer here seems to be no!

If these virtual manifestations of assembly and expression do have the same value and legitimacy as their physical manifestations then the implicit connection made by the UN’s Human Rights experts on the actions of the Egyptian governments in cutting off the Internet and thus disrupting the opportunity for assembly and expression via Facebook and Twitter would appear to be a clear violation of human rights (Egypt of course being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

The “association” that Egyptian (and of course Tunisian) young people were carrying out via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be understood as a counterpart to the similar association that might have taken place on a university campus, in a coffee shop or in a community hall or mosque.  Thus in this context, the closing down of the Internet so as to disrupt Facebook and Twitter was not simply a political (and evidently failed) act of desperation but was also a violation of the human rights of these Egyptian young people and particularly their right of association and assembly and specifically Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that” “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”. 

Freedom of association is the individual right to come together with other individuals and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests.[1] The right to freedom of association has been included in a number of national constitutions and human rights instruments. (It actually is not included in the US Constitution, which is why it is debated.) The Constitution protects assembly, not association and the European Convention on Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Thus interventions such as that of Egypt through Vodaphone in closing down access by Egyptians to the Internet and thus to their means of assembly via Facebook, Twitter and so on would appear to provide a potential framework of rights within which to assess and respond to those actions and ultimately bring to account those responsible..

If one accepts this argument then would this not necessarily change the way in which we must approach the social media.  In this, the social media would not simply be commercial operations and competitive brands—do we look on our getting together in physical space to form political groups, formulate social actions, collaboratively create civil society–as something which can or should be commercialized or branded. In fact, in many jurisdictions there are significant restrictions on introducing commercial considerations into a variety of types of civic engagements.

If we transfer the conventional behaviours and types of “association” as understood under Article 20 from physical to virtual space could we then see Facebook and Twitter not as companies, brands or applications but rather as (commercial) venues in which necessary and legally protected social behaviours – assemblies and associations –take place in a manner legally and otherwise indistinguishable from any other similar behaviours and associations.

And might the further implication of this be that for example, there would be a need to design and regulate those venues in a way similar to the manner in which we regulate physical venues including for example ensuring accessibility for the physically disabled, regulation to ensure non-discriminatory access, even the virtual equivalent to “fire regulations” which in virtual space would likely be regulation concerning privacy and personal security.

If we see human rights as seamlessly encompassing activities and associations in both physical and virtual environments perhaps then we must begin to look at the virtual world as something other than a normless wild west which to this time has been the broad perception . Rather cyberspace should be seen as a “place” where the kinds of protections and regulatory frameworks (including existing human rights legislation) would apply equally as for off-line behaviours. It follows then that owners of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should be seen not as owners of the space and behaviours being manifest through their systems but rather as proprietors of virtual venues where these behaviours are taking place.