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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, March 24, 2008


electronic intifada

posted by Aziz P. at Monday, March 24, 2008 permalink View blog reactions
Facebook is now the Virtual Front for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Facebook users residing in the highly controversial settlement of Maale Adumim were incensed when they discovered that they were listed as residing in "Palestine" by default. Reuters quotes one settler, Ari Zimmerman, as saying "I am a citizen of Israel, as are all of the other residents of Ariel. We do not live in 'Palestine', nor does anyone else." A Facebook group was quickly established in protest, called "Facebook Has No Right To Say I Live In Palestine" (link).

In response, Palestinian Facebook users mobilized to create their own groups, including "Action against Facebook delisting "PALESTINE" as a country / Hometown" (link) and "Protest Facebook's categorisation of Israeli settlements as 'Israel'" (link). As with any online dispute that mirrors a real-world conflict, new groups are created and membership in these groups fluctuates constantly.

In response to all of this sound and fury, Facebook's response was largely practical - it now allows residents of affected settlements to choose whether they are in Israel or Palestine. Brandee Barker, Facebook's director of communications emailed Reuters to explain that "Facebook users in the Israeli West Bank settlements of Maale Adumim, Beitar Illit, and Ariel can now choose between Israel and Palestine." According to Barker, residents of the major West Bank city of Hebron, home to over 150,000 Palestinians and less than 1000 Israelis, may also select their country in the same manner. All in all, at present 18 settlements have this feature, with many more added in the near future.

Ulimately, Facebook's decision to put the choice in the hands of its users is an effective means of side-stepping the conflict. Rather than insert itself on one side or the other, Facebook has simply delegated the details to the users themselves. Since the country listing is largely meaningless outside of the narrow confines of Facebook identity and groups, there are literally no real-world consequences to this policy, at least as far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned.

However, a precedent has now been set, one in which residents of Kosovo, Tibet, Taiwan, or even The Republic of Texas might someday theoretically invoke. Having established that its users' country location is partially subjective, Facebook will no doubt be forced to revisit the issue as other disputes from the real world interject themselves into Facebook's walled garden. Clearly, Facebook will need to establish some sort of procedure for future claimants. Unlike its users, however, Facebook is subject to political pressures as it enacts such policies.

For example, at present Facebook users are free to select Taipei, taiwan as their city of residence, but what if China demands that such users be classified as Chinese rather than Taiwanese? China has considerably more leverage over Facebook than Israel's settlers do, and the user-centric approach that Facebook has adopted for the I-P conflict may simply not be practical in such a scenario. Were Facebook to refuse, China might simply bar Facebook from the Chinese internet entirely, leaving a void in which Chinese websites like or are poised to fill (the latter which Facebook is in negotiations to acquire). Global technology firms like Google and Yahoo have already been compelled to kowtow to Chinese dictates on user access and content filtering. At stake are hundreds of millions of users, a market that no global Internet company can afford to write off.

In the real world, the ongoing Israeli-palestinian conflict is a festering sore upon the global order, one that drives all manner of secondary ill effects and crises. It seems that online, the conflict is destined to play the same role.

As Facebook navigates these projections of the real world into the virtual space, it will be breaking new ground, that all global Internet communities would be well-advised to monitor carefully.

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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.