That Elusive Facebook Sweet Spot Between Rights and Responsibilities

The case of the petition against the anti-Islam Facebook group highlights the tensions inherent in online private public spaces—or is it public private spaces? Facebook has the nice problem of having 40 million users who think the site belongs to them (us), which of course it does not. (It doesn’t belong to Battery Ventures, or any other Boston VCs, either– Scott Kirsner of the Globe tells why not.)

Eugene Volokh points out that

Facebook, of course, is legally entitled to control what’s posted on its site; it’s a private entity, and not bound by the First Amendment. In fact, its decision may itself be protected by the First Amendment, though that’s not completely clear; in any event, though, there are no laws that even purport to restrict Facebook’s discretion here.

He adds,

I do wish the New York Times had highlighted just what the petition said:

if the group “f**k Islam” and all similar disrespectful groups of religion are not shut down before the end of september..we are all goin to close our facebook accounts..and thats the least we can do to show our respect to religion and our disagreement of such humilating and ignorant groups.

The danger is not just that the Facebooks of the world will bar vulgar criticisms. Rather, it’s that the petition doesn’t just demand that “the anti-Islam group” be removed (emphasis added) — the petition calls for the shutdown of “all similar disrespectful groups of religion.” Religions are ideologies that offer themselves up for belief. They must be equally available for disbelief, and even disrespect.

The notion of Facebook’s civic responsibilities reminds me of the wellreported frustrations of Baratunde, whose self-promotional messages were not delivered to his Facebook friends. Baratunde’s unnamed Facebook respondent explained the “anti-spam” measures thusly:

Facebook is focused on “connecting real people with the people they know.” Groups were designed for this, but users re-purposed them for things like promotion. We don’t want to do the MySpace thing in the area of promotion. We think we can do it better.

(Baratunde’s problempales when compared to Kenyatta Cheese’s first Facebook experience: they wouldn’t even allow him to register for awhile, claiming that his was not “a legitimate name.”)

Robert Putnam [behind Times paywall] seems to agree with the Facebook staffer: ”The real interesting future is how can we use the Net to strengthen and deepen relationships that we have offline.” (Not by attacking others, I assume.) However, elsewhere Putnam posits that that the site may be weakening in that civic task.:

“Facebook was originally a classic ‘alloy,’ bonding the Internet and the real world,” he says. But now he says it feels less rooted in real life.

Volokh and Jack Schofield at The Guardian both note that other Facebook groups abusive of Abramhaic faiths have not engendered similar petition drives. Unsurprisingly, the commenters on Nick O’Neill’s summary of the anti-Islam group story are unanimously opposed to the group’s deletion.

I’m betting that the Facebook folks will find a workable balance between free expression and respect, or rights and responsibilies. They’re not dumb– and they managed the Newsfeed furor perfectly.

On a different note, Shahen Amanullah of altmuslim is blogging about Ramadan, which starts this week—overlapping, as he notes, with the anniversary of September 11th. (It also overlaps, roughly, with the Coptic millennium.)

In the past, I’ve used the month of Ramadan to introduce those who are not Muslim to something I feel is truly beautiful about my religion. Most people are familiar with the external (i.e. political, cultural) aspects of Islam, but few understand the internal, more spiritual ones. Being visibly Muslim, in that you are foregoing food and drink in plain view, provided a perfect opportunity for that dialogue–assuming, of course, that the news didn’t provide a distraction.

…The terrorism that I read about in the news represents the polar opposite of what Ramadan stands for. Ramadan is about opening yourself up to God’s mercy, enduring patience in the face of discomfort and adversity, and providing assistance to those less fortunate. Extremism and terrorism is just the opposite–the ultimate exercise of self-indulgence and inflicting merciless hardship on the innocent.


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