One of the biggest business stories of the day, Facebook’s impending IPO, is also a big human rights story. The company’s approach to human rights has long been a source of controversy, and its ballyhooed IPO will do nothing to lessen it. Bringing on new investors will increase pressure to expand into China and other countries hostile to privacy and free expression.
These issues should matter to investors. A reputation for hostility to human rights could irreparably damage the Facebook brand. The company may seem invincible at the moment, but the “network effect,” which helped to fuel its exponential growth, cuts both ways. Facebook is expected to conduct a marketing “road show” before its IPO. In a recent piece for Forbes, I recommended questions prospective investors should ask Facebook.
Our focus on the implications of Facebook’s IPO grows out of a broader effort to press tech companies to resist pressure from governments to clamp down on human rights. While many activists depend on social networks to organize, repressive regimes are also becoming adept at using the same networks to identify and persecute “enemies of the state.”
Tech companies may try to pretend they are neutral in these battles, but when it comes to Internet freedom, there’s no Switzerland. If you’re not protecting activists, you’re aiding their oppressors.
I invite you to support us in this work.
President and CEO
Human Rights First
One year ago, democratic uprisings swept across the Middle East. We quickly came to the aid of activists, and we’re still supporting them as they face ongoing repression. Our efforts are focused on two countries where the United States has particular influence: Bahrain and Egypt.
Last year, we helped block the U.S. sale of $53 million of weapons to the Bahraini regime, which continues to brutalize protestors. In the run-up to February 14th anniversary of the uprising, the regime launched predawn raids, dragging activists from their homes and beating them as they took them into custody. And on February 14th, it used teargas to try to quash the protests and arrested many citizens.
Brian Dooley of Human Rights First—who has documented such abuses in a series of reports—has become a go-to source in the American media. But when he recently tried to return to Bahrain, the regime prevented him from entering. Denying access to international observers is a hallmark of repressive regimes, and yet another reason why the United States should be pressuring Bahrain to respect human rights, not selling it arms.
On Egypt, we’re pressing the United States government to do everything in its power to back the stalled transition to democracy. Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks has produced a report detailing our recommendations. Based on interviews with activists, the report urges the Obama administration to take a series of steps to put pressure on the military government and empower pro-democracy NGOs.
The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act contained a number of alarming provisions, including one codifying indefinite detention for terrorism suspects. The bill was, by any measure, a setback for supporters of human rights.
But a potentially beneficial provision in the bill gives the executive branch more flexibility to transfer people out of Gitmo. A group of retired generals and admirals—members of a coalition we assembled—recently urged President Obama to take advantage of this new flexibility.
And now he is. The Obama administration is transferring five detainees to the custody of Qatar. These detainees, allegedly members of the Taliban, are being cleared for release using appropriate security and humane-treatment measures.
Gitmo—that infamous site and symbol of detainee abuse—has now been open for a decade. The struggle to shut it down continues, but this recent development is a step in the right direction.
Throughout Syria’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Russia has provided the al-Assad regime political cover at the United Nations. Now it’s providing weapons. The Russian state arms trader Rosoboronexport has signed a contract to sell the Syria government 36 combat jets capable of attacking targets on the ground.
President Obama has declared the crisis in Syria a threat to U.S national security and given the Treasury Department authority to target with sanctions not only those who commit atrocities but also those who enable them. Since 2010, Treasury has sanctioned 20 Syrian citizens as well as the Syrian companies.
It’s time to target enablers. We’ve sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner urging him to block companies, including Rosoboronexport, from supplying the Syrian government with weapons needed to commit atrocities. Such a move would bolster international efforts to stop atrocities in Syria and make clear where the United States stands on Russia’s ignominious role.
Privacy, Free Expression And The Facebook Standard
Elisa Massimino, Forbes, January 31, 2012
Bahraini protesters, police clash, fight through tear gas [Video]
By Emily Alpert, The L.A. Times, February 13, 2012
‘Underwear bomber’ case heralds US terror shake-up
By Mira Oberman, AFP, February 13, 2012