Sunday, December 28, 2014

Facebook, Vladimir Putin's Best Buddy

Recently, at the request of Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s internet monitor, Facebook erased an event page created by two Russian dissidents for a peaceful demonstration on January 15 2015 supporting leading opposition figure Alexei A. Navalny (above, courtesy Wikimedia). The page can be seen around the world, just not in Russia. Fat lot of good that does. 

Navalny is one of Putin’s most prominent and vocal critics, currently on trial for alleged embezzlement and fraud. The prosecutors have said they will call for a ten year prison sentence. Judge Yelena Korobchenko will announce the trial verdict on January 15 2015. He started out as an anti-corruption blogger and is now leader of Russia’s Progress Party. Last year he was convicted on another charge and sentenced to 5 years. The sentence was quickly commuted to a suspended one, but then Navalny was arrested again, facing more dramatic charges, and placed under house arrest. This is business as usual for Putin; he gets rid of opponents by trumping up charges against them, seizing their assets and sending them to jail.  

The rally on January 15 is purely in support of Navalny. Ergo, Facebook is directly supporting a corrupt regime. And it’s business as usual for Facebook, which has taken down thousands of pages at the behest of governments; 29 Russian pages in 6 months (only 4 last year in the same period) and 1,773 in Pakistan, up from 162 in the previous six months. But it leaves pages that bully and trash young kids until they commit suicide.

Since I learned that Facebook was a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2014, along with the likes of Koch Industries and the National Rifle Association, nothing it does surprises me but it increasingly disgusts and alarms me. I don’t know how much Zuckerberg has to do with these decisions but it’s still his business.

Anyone who can create a business as successful as Facebook has my admiration for sheer creativity and gutzpah. But when what you do with your business actively enables corrupt governments admiration turns to disgust and more.

One of the greatest advantages of and most beautiful thing about social media is how it unites people who need group support to be able to protest injustice; how it can be used to bring down a corrupt regime, even peacefully. It’s great for Zuckerberg; it adds an aura of social responsibility to Facebook and makes people want to use it even more. It makes good business sense and it’s decent. But surely a business can’t have that and collusion with a regime as corrupt as Putin’s government and not be affected?

Whether it is affected or not the social consequences are terrifying. In response to the understandable outrage around the world, a New York Times editorial made the point that Facebook isn’t a government; it’s a corporation, so it’s not bound to care about freedom of speech or civil rights. When it does business in a country and earns significantly from that business, it makes business sense to not break the law and risk losing all that lovely moolah. Right now the law in Russia is that rallies (which Roskomnadzor calls ‘unsanctioned mass events’) with more than 3 people are illegal. Hallo apartheid era South Africa. No doubt if Facebook had been around then it would have taken down all ANC pages.

The NYT editorial is right. Facebook owes nobody anything. It’s not a government, so it’s not morally bound to preserve and protect human rights.

But here’s the problem. When a government has huge control over people’s lives there’s always some way of fighting against it. Facebook’s control has developed from Zuckerberg’s insight into how easy it is to manipulate us through our need to connect and our voracious narcissistic tendencies. He’s always seen his ‘subjects’ as idiots. When a corporation has this kind of control then starts colluding with corrupt regimes, who’s going to stop it? We have no socially developed means to counter the ill effects of control that knows no boundaries and has no ethics at all.

Facebook, once mostly a tool for broadening our minds, making connections all over the world and liberating the repressed, is now also a tool for destroying freedom. Don’t take it personally, it’s just business.

I take it personally. What’s to be done? Somebody sarcastically said we get what we ask for. If everybody wasn’t so narcissistically fascinated with themselves and ‘sharing’ every intimate detail of their lives, Facebook wouldn’t have any power over us. So if we don’t want the ill effects we can boycott it. At first I thought, I don’t agree. People can post blogs etc. exposing Facebook for what he is, dismantling the myth that Zuckerberg's the good guy. But the best way to counter unethical Facebook policies is to use it to post original stuff, protect privacy, never subscribe to another site from it and desist from ever clicking on an ad.

Then I gave it a bit more thought and realized that Facebook doesn’t give you the option to block your friends from giving your information away. Which they do every time they subscribe or even just log in to another site with their Facebook details. Gotcha!  

My sarcastic friend also added that it’s none of our business what happens in Russia. That one I definitely disagree with. Not feeling outraged when somebody else suffers isn’t a good thing, which you discover when you’re under threat and somebody who isn’t directly affect by whatever is threatening you says “it’s not my business” and walks on.

Besides, this particular action doesn't directly affect anybody outside of Russia but the driving principle, that corporate money is more important than people's freedom, does affect us all because it underpins all of Zuckerberg's policies, one of which is sponsorship of US conservative politicians. And whether we live in America or not we do need to worry about that. Everything’s connected these days.

I presume the rally will happen. I hope nobody gets arrested and that Alexei Navalny doesn’t spend the rest of his life in jail on more trumped up charges and eventually get his freedom when he’s been destroyed. He doesn't look like a man who'll let himself be destroyed.

Like Mikhail Khodorkovsky (above, courtesy Wikimedia), once Russia's wealthiest man, imprisoned for ten years on trumped up charges, assets seized and now a reformed man. Recently released and living in Zurich, he works towards overthrowing Putin.

As for whoever is making the final decisions on Facebook – and Zuckerberg has to be a part of that – they and he won't suddenly develop integrity. From this point they'll sell more of their soul - and ours - to the devil. I can't think of adjectives strong enough to describe what I think of Zuckerberg for letting this happen. All I can hope is that he gets what he deserves. Loss of business because he and all corporate giants can toss off “don’t take it personally it’s just business” and you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of them all of the time. Not forever. I hope.