Echoes of Yahoo!-China?

Fouad Mourtada, a 26-year old Moroccan computer engineer, created a Facebook profile in which he impersonated a Moroccan prince. Morocco was not amused. It convicted Mourtada of a criminal offense (the WS Journal article does not specify what it was), fining him and imposing a three-year jail sentence. There is a question whether Facebook turned over Mourtada’s identity to Moroccan authorities. The article quotes a Facebook spokesperson that while the company’s policies allow it to share information with police “when it has a good faith belief it is legally obligated to do so,” it did not share Mourtada’s identity with police in this case. Of course if a website is “legally 0bligated” to provide information to police then it is not “allowing” access to the information because it is not exercising discretion.

This case is reminiscent of the controversy over Yahoo!’s role in sharing with Chinese law enforcement the identity of pro-democracy dissidents whom were convicted of anti-Chinese activities, sentenced to long prison terms, and allegedly tortured. The imprisoned dissidents have sued Yahoo! twice for human-rights violations for the company’s involvement in their imprisonment; one suit was settled last November but another was filed this week. (See here and here for background.) I don’t want to overstate the parallels; the Yahoo! case involves speech that is legal under U.S. law and illegal under Chinese law. Yahoo!’s position is that it cooperated with Chinese authorities because, as a corporation doing business in China, it had to. That’s a safe legal argument but it ducks the complexity of the ethical issues. Mourtada’s phony Facebook profile–he claims it was a joke–may not rise to the same level of First Amendment protection as the dissidents’ speech but would not appear to have violated U.S. law if not defamatory or fraudulent. Facebook is certainly justified for terminating Mourtada’s account for violating its terms of use. So despite the distinctions between the two situations they share common elements. The Facebook platform can be used to engage in activities that might be unlawful or culturally discouraged in a particular country. This week I had a long conversation with a student critical of her country’s attempt to regulate Facebook because young people are using it for dating. The potential exists for Facebook or any social-networking site to cooperate with law enforcement to enforce local legal or cultural norms that would be antithetical to U.S. law or custom.

2 thoughts on “Echoes of Yahoo!-China?”

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