|Facebook was launched eight years ago and now has 845 million users [Reuters]|
San Francisco, CA – Today marks a milestone for Facebook. Originally launched in 2004 as a site for Harvard students to connect online, the social networking giant is now celebrating its eighth anniversary, just weeks after launching its new “timeline” interface – the feature referred to by countless journalists as a social media “gamechanger”.
When Facebook launched in 2004, its founders could never have imagined the company would achieve the global reach it is. Recent statistics cited by the company claim nearly 845 million users (eighty per cent of whom reside outside of the United States and Canada), a figure sure to rise in 2012, as numerous countries – including highly populous India – experience rapid increases in internet penetration.
Unlike YouTube – which has been censored at some point or another by no fewer than ten countries – Facebook has remained largely available around the world, a fact that could be attributed to Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Internet Censorship, which posits that citizens tend to care about online censorship only when it affects their day-to-day lives, or their access to cute cat photos on social networks. The exceptions are Vietnam and China, the latter of which the company has reportedly considered entering.
Subtract China and Vietnam’s netizens from the equation, and there remain only 750 million or so internet users left for Facebook to court.
What does Facebook’s growth mean for the world?
If the Arab Spring is any indication, more Facebook could mean increased civic participation, undoubtedly a good thing. But, despite healthy competition from Google+ and other, local platforms, more users could also mean a near-monopoly for Facebook.
In her recently-released book, Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon expresses concerns for what private ownership of our “public” online spaces means. When asked what Facebook’s rapid growth means for its global userbase, MacKinnon says: “The digital lives of people all over the world are increasingly shaped by the ideology and belief system of the Sultan of Facebookistan.”
Though its users often treat the site like the proverbial town square, the site is in fact more like a shopping mall: privately owned, with its own set of rules determined by a staff and board of directors. In other words, Facebook might be the size of a large country, but it is not governed like one; its governance is more autocratic than democratic.
Like other companies of its kind, Facebook has grappled with privacy and free expression concerns that effect all of its users, but despite a vocal contingent, those users have little to no input in how the company solves such complex questions.
Facebook for surveillance?
Perhaps the biggest concern to arise from Facebook’s growth is something mostly outside of the company’s control: Use of the site by autocratic regimes to monitor citizens.
Included in Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion is a chapter entitled “Why the KGB Wants You to Join Facebook“. In it, Morozov describes an example from Belarus in which a university student who was was interrogated found that authorities had mined his Facebook profile, deducing from his contacts that he was a political activist. Similar incidents have been reported in Uzbekistan – and in Syria, detained activists are regularly forced to hand over their Facebook passwords to authorities. And the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia used a fake Facebook homepage to entrap activists.
To its credit, Facebook has responded swiftly to technological vulnerabilities, implementing HTTPS in Tunisia following the breach, but there’s not much the company can do when faced with widespread surveillance of its networks by foreign governments, particularly if the monitored content is public.
Lest it seem that a more global Facebook is definitively a bad thing, it isn’t. Not only does increased participation create more room for civic participation – at least in some places – but for many users around the world, Facebook is something more personal: a way to keep in touch with friends and family all over the globe.
At a time when populations are increasingly dispersed, this is no small thing. Young people who move abroad to seek work use the site to remain close to loved ones. Palestinian, Tibetan and Iranian internet users alike have cited social media sites such as Facebook as important for connecting with members of their diasporas. Parents use the site to keep tabs on students away at university.
With all of these benefits apparent, it is fortunate that many of the concerns raised here are within the company’s control. Now is the time for its global users to grab the reigns and make sure the sovereigns of Facebook are listening to them.
Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.