Last week, we were amused by a pally face-to-face webcam chat between the British Prime Minister and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. But this week the two have probably fallen out over a Facebook Fan group for a murderer.
British PM David Cameron was enthusiastic when he spoke with Zuckerberg about the opportunities offered by social networking--and Facebook in particular--as a tool for letting the British people communicate upwards into the government in ways that have never been possible before. But now it seems that Facebook's very openness has caused an issue for Cameron and the rest of his coalition government.
The problem is a Facebook page called "Rest In Peace Raoul Moat." Former nightclub doorman Moat is currently in the news headlines in the U.K. after engaging in a shooting spree that killed his ex-girlfriends new partner, injured her, and blinded a police officer who was sat in a marked police car. Moat shot himself on Saturday after a stand-off with police, and the Facebook "shrine" page appeared quickly afterwards. Using Facebook's community commenting powers, the various commenters on the page have been expressing tributes to Moat due to the controversies of the case, and despite his evident guilt in the shooting events. And this has angered the U.K.'s politicians (possibly to an extra degree due to the wounding of a police officer). After a request from within Cameron's own political party, Downing Street then made an official request to Facebook to have the page removed.
But Facebook refused. Despite the nature of the page being "disturbing" the site stood on free speech principles and noted that public debate is a good thing, and is occurring throughouth the U.K.'s culture--not just on Facebook. "Facebook is a place where people can express their views and discuss things in an open way as they can and do in many other places, and as such we sometimes find people discussing topics others may find distasteful, however that is not a reason in itself to stop a debate from happening," is the official line.
And following basic journalistic principles, as well as the constitutionally-driven incentive for free speech, Facebook's arguments make sense: If it enabled discussion about the seemingly corrupt election results in Iran last year, it should also be able to host a discussion page about a figure that's all over the British news. This stance also highlights that social networking is a vital tool in our modern society, and it implies Facebook considers itself important enough to make a big decision on public controversies.
Is this a sensible move? It certainly puts the site in direct conflict with the leaders of Britain (even if you could argue that a smarter political move would've been for Cameron to serenely sail above the matter) and that's not a good thing. Britain is never going to censor Facebook access for its citizens, as that move is incompatible with the nation's own stance on free speech. But could Facebook have closed comments on the problem page, effectively drawing a line under the matter in the way the Wikipedia sometimes deals with tricky pages? That may have been a smart trick, because it would've been an acknowledgement that Facebook does have some sort of moral stance on hosting anti-cultural media, and although Facebook is powerful (and an important feature of 21st Century society), the British PM is much more so ... and may easily choose alternative social networking strategies for future government plans to connect to the British people.
To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.