Ruling Facebookistan: The world’s largest social networking site has a population nearly as large as China or India’s. And the natives are getting restless.
June 18, 2012
At 6 p.m. Taipei time on Friday, June 1, Ho Tsung-hsun was suddenly shut out of his Facebook account. When he tried to log back in, a message in a red box announced: “This account has been disabled.” Ho, a veteran activist and citizen journalist on environmental and social issues in Taiwan, immediately took a picture of the message, then wrote an angry blog post on a Taiwan-based citizen journalism platform. He insisted that he had not violated any of the site’s community guidelines. Furthermore, he wrote, “the information I’ve collected and the Facebook groups that I’ve created and maintained all disappeared, which has caused inconvenience to my work and interpersonal relationships.”
Later that night, Ho’s account was restored — also without explanation. As it turned out, a number of Taiwanese politicians and activists had all experienced similar problems on the same day. Angered by what seemed like an act of arbitrary punishment against people who were not violating the site’s rules in any way that they themselves could discern, Taipei City Councilor Ho Zhi-Wei wrote anopen letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook — now a publicly listed company — “certainly has public responsibilities for public welfare.”
The incident underscored the extent to which people around the world have come to rely on Facebook for political activism and discourse — from the Green Movement in Iran, to revolutionaries in Egypt, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Facebook is not a physical country, but with 900 million users, its “population” comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people’s online activities and identities.
In apparent recognition that it faces real human rights risks and responsibilities, Facebook recently became an observer member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting core principles on free expression and privacy in the Internet and telecommunications industries. Whether the company ultimately joins as a full member, committing to uphold these principles and be held publicly accountable to them, will be a key test of its core values. Meanwhile, the postings, pages, likes, and friend requests of millions of politically active users have helped to make Zuckerberg and colleagues very rich. These people are increasingly unhappy about the manner in which Facebookistan is governed and are taking action as the stakes continue to rise on all sides.
Facebook is blocked in mainland China, but is used heavily by the rest of the Chinese-speaking world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Political activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan use Facebook as their primary tool to mobilize support for their causes and activities. On June 1, when scores of activists’ accounts were deactivated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, outrage and conspiracy theories quickly spread across the Internet. Activists in Hong Kong suspected political foul play, given that their accounts were suspended just as they were organizing major protests to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Company executives insist that the suspensions were the result of internal computer and staff errors that had nothing to do with Chinese or Taiwanese politics. In a statement sent in response to journalists’ queries, spokeswoman Debbie Frost explained:
“To protect the millions of people who connect and share on Facebook every day, we have automated systems and a dedicated team that reviews reports made by users in order to maintain a trusted environment and protect the nearly billion people that use our site. In this instance, we mistakenly took action on a number of accounts and temporarily suspended them. When this happens, we try our best to resolve the situation, apologize to those affected and make any necessary changes to our processes to help prevent such mistakes happening again. We have already remediated the majority of these accounts, and expect to complete the process soon.”
That statement, however, was not posted anywhere on Facebook’s Site Governance page or other pages used for corporate announcements to users — nor was it sent to the users whose accounts were affected. Meanwhile, Ho in Taipei says that he received no explanation or apology.
The problem is not new. In 2010 the Open Net Initiative, an organization dedicated to the study of Internet censorship worldwide, published a report titled “Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere,” documenting account deactivations and deletion of activists’ postings across many of the world’s most popular social media services, including numerous examples on Facebook. In Egypt on Nov. 24, 2010, the day before a long-planned Friday of protest against police brutality just months before the Tahrir Square demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak regime, the key Facebook page dedicated to organizing the protest disappeared from view. Its creators received a notice from Facebook staff that they had violated terms of service that require administrators of pages to use their real identities — and furthermore, that accounts of people not using their real names, when discovered, would be shut down. The page administrators, including Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was using Facebook under an alias in order to protect himself, were fortunate to have contacts in Silicon Valley and in U.S.-based human rights organizations, who negotiated with Facebook executives to get the page restored.
But not all activists are so well-connected, and in many more cases, accounts remain intact but specific postings are blocked or deleted. In June 2011 the British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg complained that a link he had posted on his Facebook page connecting to the website of an organization called Oneworld Freedom for Palestine had been removed. As he wrote on the group’s page (which was also temporarily deactivated): “When I click on the link that I posted yesterday this is the message I got: ‘Sorry the link you are trying to visit has been reported as abusive by Facebook users’. I’d like to know what in the video was considered abusive and by whom.”
Incidents such as these inspired Palestinian activist Ramzi Jaber, a social entrepreneur in residence at Stanford, to create a new website, onlinecensorship.org, through which users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Google Plus can report on incidents of deletion and deactivation. The site is currently in final testing phases and will be launched to the public by the end of June, in hopes of holding social media companies like Facebook more accountable for the way in which they govern their services…
June 18, 2012
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, says James Astill. The retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers
STANDING ON THE Greenland ice cap, it is obvious why restless modern man so reveres wild places. Everywhere you look, ice draws the eye, squeezed and chiselled by a unique coincidence of forces. Gormenghastian ice ridges, silver and lapis blue, ice mounds and other frozen contortions are minutely observable in the clear Arctic air. The great glaciers impose order on the icy sprawl, flowing down to a semi-frozen sea.
The ice cap is still, frozen in perturbation. There is not a breath of wind, no engine’s sound, no bird’s cry, no hubbub at all. Instead of noise, there is its absence. You feel it as a pressure behind the temples and, if you listen hard, as a phantom roar. For generations of frosty-whiskered European explorers, and still today, the ice sheet is synonymous with the power of nature.
The Arctic is one of the world’s least explored and last wild places. Even the names of its seas and rivers are unfamiliar, though many are vast. Siberia’s Yenisey and Lena each carries more water to the sea than the Mississippi or the Nile. Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is six times the size of Germany. Yet it has a population of just 57,000, mostly Inuit scattered in tiny coastal settlements. In the whole of the Arctic—roughly defined as the Arctic Circle and a narrow margin to the south (see map)—there are barely 4m people, around half of whom live in a few cheerless post-Soviet cities such as Murmansk and Magadan. In most of the rest, including much of Siberia, northern Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and northern Scandinavia, there is hardly anyone. Yet the region is anything but inviolate.
A heat map of the world, colour-coded for temperature change, shows the Arctic in sizzling maroon. Since 1951 it has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average. In that period the temperature in Greenland has gone up by 1.5°C, compared with around 0.7°C globally. This disparity is expected to continue. A 2°C increase in global temperatures—which appears inevitable as greenhouse-gas emissions soar —would mean Arctic warming of 3-6°C.
Almost all Arctic glaciers have receded. The area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by almost a fifth since 1966. But it is the Arctic Ocean that is most changed. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s the minimum extent of polar pack ice fell by around 8% per decade. Then, in 2007, the sea ice crashed, melting to a summer minimum of 4.3m sq km (1.7m square miles), close to half the average for the 1960s and 24% below the previous minimum, set in 2005. This left the north-west passage, a sea lane through Canada’s 36,000-island Arctic Archipelago, ice-free for the first time in memory.
Scientists, scrambling to explain this, found that in 2007 every natural variation, including warm weather, clear skies and warm currents, had lined up to reinforce the seasonal melt. But last year there was no such remarkable coincidence: it was as normal as the Arctic gets these days. And the sea ice still shrank to almost the same extent.
There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned. Because the atmosphere is shedding less solar heat, it is warming—a physical effect predicted back in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist. But why is the Arctic warming faster than other places?
Consider, first, how very sensitive to temperature change the Arctic is because of where it is. In both hemispheres the climate system shifts heat from the steamy equator to the frozen pole. But in the north the exchange is much more efficient. This is partly because of the lofty mountain ranges of Europe, Asia and America that help mix warm and cold fronts, much as boulders churn water in a stream. Antarctica, surrounded by the vast southern seas, is subject to much less atmospheric mixing.
The land masses that encircle the Arctic also prevent the polar oceans revolving around it as they do around Antarctica. Instead they surge, north-south, between the Arctic land masses in a gigantic exchange of cold and warm water: the Pacific pours through the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska, and the Atlantic through the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
That keeps the average annual temperature for the high Arctic (the northernmost fringes of land and the sea beyond) at a relatively sultry -15°C; much of the rest is close to melting-point for much of the year. Even modest warming can therefore have a dramatic effect on the region’s ecosystems. The Antarctic is also warming, but with an average annual temperature of -57°C it will take more than a few hot summers for this to become obvious…
India’s Shot At Olympic Gold: The phenomenal Mary Kom- five-times world champion and mother of two who has had to battle against far more than just her opponents in the ring
June 18, 2012
“One plays football. One does not play boxing.”
– Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing”
Play, or its Hindi equivalent, khel, is the verb Mary Kom uses. She could be referring to a tournament, “when I played national”, her stance, “I play southpaw”, or her weight category, “I must play in 51kg in the Olympics.” But there is something deeper when Kom says it. Childbirth and child-rearing, that is life. Lifting yourself out of poverty, fulfilling the duties of a wife, a daughter, an eldest sister, that is life. Boxing is so much; but still it is play.
She is in the ring right now, and to be ringside when Mary Kom is in action is to feel the kinetic heat of boxing. It is molecular. She is padding against a man whom, a little while ago, in his spectacles, sweater and moustache, I took for a government officer. Now, shorn of the first two, he has transformed himself into a provocateur, a matador. He is baiting Mary, taunting her with words and jabs in the face. When their heads come together, their spit and sweat fall on each other, the blazing whites of their eyes are falling into each other’s. Kom is 5ft 2in officially, an inch more in her own estimate, but looks smaller—even more so in her headgear. Small, but taut: a packet of tensile strength.
Her muscles must be on fire. Counting her rounds against the bag, the mirror and the other women at the camp, national- and international-level boxers, she has completed the equivalent of two full-length competition bouts. Those girls were heavier and taller. This is just as well because when women’s boxing debuts at the 2012 Olympics, Mary must play taller opponents, who will have a longer reach. Most of her championship victories have come as a pinweight boxer, 46kg, whereas in London the lightest class, flyweight, is 51kg.
But next to Mary, these other girls were ponderous. Their feet were sluggish, their positioning not so clever. She could fight with her guard down, testing her reflexes by offering them her bare chin as a target, and counter-attacking in angles unfamiliar to boxers who take the orthodox stance.
All around the gym the girls furtively watched her. They covet her low-gravity wound-up springiness, her pure petite explosiveness. They would love to lunge so wide and fast, and never need to wrestle or go to the ropes. Aggression is her hallmark, and it makes her exhilarating to watch.
“Yeh leh Mary,” Mr Bhaskar Bhatt goads her, “take this. And this.” This too is the play of boxing.
“He tries to make me angry,” she says later, “but I have to be cool.” Her grimace is hidden by her white gumshield. You can feel her burn; it’s been 80 minutes now.
“Aaja Mary, sha-baash, come Mary, come.” This is a “specific training” session, devoted to feints and combination punches. He’s making her chase him, holding up his pad for her to pull out another series of rifling combination punches, which she does with sharp yelp-like breaths.
“Phoom.” That is the sound she wants from a punch. “When it’s tak, tak, like that, it is OK, not powerful,” she will say, throwing me a mock punch. “Phoom! That is powerful.”
At last the session is finished. “60%,” says Mr Bhatt, bespectacled again, assessing a fortnight’s progress. “She has not come into her original yet. Once she does that, when she gets back her automatisation, no one can stop her. See, Mary never gets puzzled in the ring. She has killer instinct.”
To cool off, this 29-year-old mother of two does cartwheels and somersaults in the ring, and looks suddenly adolescent—copper highlights in her hair, fluorescent laces on her shoes. When she lands awkwardly on an ankle that was recently injured, she just giggles. She lies on her stomach to be rubbed down by a physio provided by Olympic Gold Quest, a private non-profit organisation which began funding India’s elite athletes in 2007.
The gym is on the premises of an erstwhile palace in Patiala, Punjab, now India’s national sports institute. In its grounds the hedges are trim, the trees are labelled with numbers, and the kerb is painted in zebra stripes, but beneath the order it is still India, no country for athletes. Kom will return to shared accommodation in a hostel, where she will boil vegetables with fermented fish on her portable stove, because the mess food can leave her with indigestion. She will hand-wash her clothes, scrubbing the blood off her socks, as there is a single washing machine for an entire hostel of athletes. Two years ago, two female boxers, one a world-championship medallist, were asked to serve tea to visitors and wash up afterwards.
Only one Indian, the rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra, has ever won an individual Olympic gold medal. A chapter in his memoirs is entitled “Mr Indian Official: Thanks for Nothing”…