Facebook has gotten a lot of credit for the role it played during the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that if you are a dissident group trying to fight for your rights against a repressive government — regardless of what country you happen to be in — you are likely far better off with Twitter than you are with Facebook. The latest sign of this came from Turkish officials earlier this week, as they tried to put pressure on both companies to provide more information about dissident activity.
According to reports by the Guardian and the BBC, transport and communications minister Binali Yildirim said the Turkish government had asked Twitter to set up an office in the country, or to provide someone they could work with directly when “information is requested.” Although he didn’t specify what kind of information he might want, Twitter has been singled out by Prime Minister Erdogan as “a menace to society” for its use during recent protests. Yildirim added:
“We want to see someone in Turkey who can provide this … there needs to be an interlocutor we can put our grievance to and who can correct an error if there is one. We have told all social media that … if you operate in Turkey you must comply with Turkish law.”
Twitter refused Turkey’s request for info
According to officials at the ministry who spoke to the Guardian, the government had asked Twitter for the identities of users who posted messages deemed insulting to the government or prime minister, or that infringed on people’s personal rights. Twitter — which has made a point of describing itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party” — refused to respond to the request, and the Guardian quoted a source as saying the company had no intention of opening an office in Turkey.
And what about Facebook? The company doesn’t have an actual office in Turkey, but it does have staff in London who respond to government requests, according to a report from the BBC. And when asked about the Turkish government’s interest in co-operation from the giant social network, the communications minister gave the kind of endorsement that would make many companies cringe:
Facebook has denied providing data
Facebook quickly moved to squash the inevitable suspicions that it had been providing data on its users to the Turkish government, suspicions that have likely been heightened by multiple reports that Facebook has been providing a kind of “back door” access to the National Security Agency as part of its PRISM surveillance program (which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has denied).
The company said in a statement that it has closed down pages related to Turkish activism, but only because they had “fake profiles,” and added that “we reject all government data requests from Turkish authorities and push them to formal legal channels unless it appears that there is an immediate threat to life or a child.” The statement also said that the company was planning to meet with Turkish officials to express concern about government attempts to force it to provide data.
Whatever the reality might be of Facebook’s co-operation with the Turkish government, there’s no question that Twitter has the upper hand when it comes to resisting official attempts to compel it to provide information on users: Not only is the network the only major service that doesn’t show up on a list of “partners” for the NSA’s surveillance program — something it rejected strongly, according to the Guardian — but it has also fought requests for user data from both the French courts and the U.S. government.
Twitter has a history of resisting governments
In the French case, Twitter was sued by a group of Jewish students over anti-Semitic messages that appeared on the network in, and was ordered to provide personal data about those users because anti-Semitism is against the law in France (Twitter appealed the decision but ultimately lost). And in the U.S. case, Twitter fought for the right to inform several users associated with WikiLeaks that the Justice Department had filed a court order compelling it to release personal information about their account activity.
It’s also worth noting that removing accounts for “fake profiles” the way Facebook did — which likely refers to using fake names, a breach of the network’s terms of service — rarely happens on Twitter, and in most cases only when someone is using the name of a celebrity or a brand without permission. Facebook, by contrast, has been repeatedly criticized for censoring or removing various kinds of content, including some relatively innocuous varieties such as breastfeeding photos, which is why some prominent free-speech advocates such as Rebecca MacKinnon refer to it as “Facebookistan.”
Can you use Facebook anonymously? Yes, using tools such as Tor, or other tricks to disguise your real identity (Facebook blocked Tor recently, but this was apparently a technical glitch). And the company may be totally sincere in its rejection of Turkey’s requests for information about users. But if you’re looking for the social network that has the best track record of fighting to protect your speech and your identity, that would have to be the one with the little bird icon.