The Middle East is still in the throes of a democratic revolution, a revolution that might not have been possible without social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. There’s no better way to get the word out to the masses than these social networking sites, but some people wonder whether these sites have a responsibility to the activists who use them. How should they respond to requests from foreign governments about the accounts of people that these governments target? After all, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” and repressive governments tend to adopt a very narrow definition of “freedom fighters.” What restrictions, if any, should these sites place on free speech? Is there a difference between a request for information from the U.S., Canada, China, or Libya? Should there be one?

In an effort to tackle these questions, IT companies, human rights groups, journalists, and academics teamed up to form the Global Network Initiative. Its goal is to “creat[e] a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sector,” in face of “increasing government pressure to comply with domestic laws and policies in ways that may conflict with the internationally recognized human rights of freedom of expression and privacy.”

IT companies? Well, actually only three have signed on: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Admittedly, these are some of the biggest players, but others are conspicuously absent. Facebook and Twitter, for instance, are rapidly emerging as the voices of disenfranchised youth throughout the Middle East and other trouble spots. It is hard to imagine that they would oppose an agreement calling on them to “respect and protect the freedom of expression of their users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.” Past privacy issues with Facebook aside, they probably agree that to, “employ protections with respect to personal information in all countries where they operate in order to protect the privacy rights of users.” Yet they have so far avoided signing on.

There may be valid reasons for this. They may be unwilling to submit to an independent audit to determine whether their policies really do address key issues revolving around free speech and privacy.  Such an audit is planned for both this year and next.

Furthermore, The New York Times points out that the three member companies have also violated the code in some way or other. In 2006, Microsoft shut down the blog of a prominent Chinese dissident, and its blogging tool has, in the past, filtered Chinese terms for “human rights” and “democracy.”

That same year, Yahoo was found to be responsible for the imprisonment of more than one Chinese dissident. While Google has had a long complicated relationship with the Chinese government, it is in Europe and Australia that people have come to question whether projects like Street View have violated personal privacy. One would hope that the Global Network Initiative is a step forward in addressing these concerns.

And one would hope that other major websites would come on board, including Facebook and Twitter. As Uncle Ben famously cautioned Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” These websites have the power.

Read More at The New York Times.
See Wael Ghonim describe the role of Facebook and Twitter in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement.