On April 29, 2011, dozens of Facebook profiles were disabled without warning or explanation. All were associated broadly with the British anti-cuts movement, and covered a range of political concerns: environment, education, arts, war, health. On Friday afternoon, news of the purge began to make its way across Twitter, Facebook and various blogs. By Friday evening, the Guardian had picked up the story, after which Facebook began to contact the affected administrators.
The explanation proffered was a technical one: these organisations had set up profiles (intended for individuals), rather than using the site’s group or page functions (intended for organisations), in violation of Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook had subsequently, according to company spokesman Barry Schnitt, conducted a routine sweep in the name of “safety, security and accountability.” These belated emails also provided instructions for converting disabled profiles to more acceptable group formats.
While much of the subsequent commentary has focused on the particulars of technological competence, there are larger political issues at stake. What Facebook has not explained is the timing of the purge – months after many of these profiles were set up – and why Facebook appears to have targeted British anti-cuts groups in particular.
The run-up to the royal wedding has seen an astonishing assault on civil liberties in the UK. Last week, police authorities in several jurisdictions engaged in a wave of preemptive strikes, raiding occupied spaces in London, Brighton and Bristol, and arresting street artists, anarchists and squatters – some of whom intended to protest the spectacle, many of whom didn’t. Some were arrested at their homes. Some were charged with alleged offenses stemming from protests which took place months ago. Yesterday, the Met threw up a cordon around the royal event under sections 60 and 60a of the Criminal Justice Act (allowing them to stop and search without suspicion and order the removal of face coverings, respectively), and arrested several protesters, most of whom were nowhere near the event itself. While the London Metropolitan Police have disavowed any connection between the Facebook purge and the royal crackdown, the brutal and egregious treatment of activists over the course of the past week – coming hard on the heels of a string of police abuses from the 2010 student protests to the 2009 G20 demonstrations and far beyond – raises reasonable suspicion that Facebook has acted under pressure.
That police authorities monitor Facebook for political activity is beyond doubt. Last December, according to the Guardian and other media sources, a 12 year-old pupil named Nicky Wishart was cautioned by anti-terror police after using Facebook to organise a protest (against the closure of a youth centre) at the PM’s constituency office. That the coalition government has tapped Facebook in the quest to peddle neoliberal revanchism is a matter of public record. Last July, as reported by the BBC, David Cameron and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg discussed the potential use of Facebook as a platform for harnessing “civic spirit” in the hegemonic infliction of public sector cuts.
There is a vast and troubling irony in the widespread celebration of the role of social networking sites in distant revolutions, most notably those associated with the “Arab spring,” and the simultaneous surveillance of such networks by police authorities seeking to suppress dissent in the west. There are also crucial questions, particularly in the context of the outright assault on the British public sector, about the role of corporate infrastructures – often championed by the right as a safeguard of “freedom” against an oppressive state apparatus – in the facilitation of political expression. This either-or-scenario is a red herring which effectively backs us into a corner, forced to choose between public communication platforms that grow increasingly privatised, and private communication technologies that are increasingly susceptible to state appropriation. In the long run, this is an unacceptable “choice” – because it signifies no choice at all – but in the short run, we’d like some answers. Why were these particular Facebook pages purged at this particular time, and at whose behest?
Facebook needs to provide a clear and honest explanation, and the Met needs to clarify its role. If the authorities indeed had nothing to do with it, they have nonetheless invited suspicion by engaging in mass preemptive raids and arrests which cause grave concern about due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and the dubious claim that the British monarchy is “above politics.” The actions of the police are beyond contempt. The actions of Facebook are at best inexplicable. We demand to know if there is any connection between the two – and in the absence of any such connection, what exactly triggered the Facebook purge.