A U.S. federal judge has ordered Facebook to hand over records related to accounts it shut down in 2018 due to their connections to fierce government assaults against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. In a ruling, the court stated that Facebook’s citing of a privacy provision to withhold the records from Myanmar was “rich with irony.”
The judge’s ruling criticized the U.S. company for refusing to provide the records to The Gambia and countries pursuing a genocide case against Myanmar in an international court, saying it “would compound the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya.”
Somewhat incongruously, given the nature of its business model, Facebook had refused to release the data on the grounds of privacy, claiming that it would violate a U.S. law that bars electronic communication services from disclosing users’ communications. But the judge said the deleted posts, made by Myanmar officials, would not be covered under the law, the Journal reported.
U.S. magistrate judge Zia M. Faruqui argued that for the tentacular global platform to take up the cause of privacy rights was “rich with irony,” pointing out that “news sites have entire sections dedicated to Facebook’s sordid history of privacy scandals.”
As a result, he ordered Facebook to release the records of the accounts to the government of the Gambia, which is seeking to prosecute Myanmar’s government at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
The accounts in question, which included the official reports of senior Myanmar military leaders, such as Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led February’s coup, were removed by Facebook in August 2018. This was a year after Myanmar’s armed forces launched a brutal “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west.
The August 2017 assaults saw Myanmar troops raze villages, shoot civilians, rape girls and women, and drive more than 700,000 people over the border into Bangladesh, allegedly in response to scattered attacks by Rohingya militants. The United Nations investigators later said offensive showed “genocidal intent.”
Facebook’s removal of the accounts, followed by further deletions in the subsequent months, came amid mounting criticisms of the social network’s role in providing the military and its ultranationalist allies a conduit for hate speech directed against Muslims in general and the Rohingya in particular.
Why did Facebook withhold the data? Aside from a corporate secrecy reflex, the only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that Facebook was concerned that the disclosure of the shuttered accounts would reflect poorly on its conduct: in particular, its blithe lack of preparedness for the ways that its technology might be used in the context of Myanmar, as well as its delays in heeding the warnings of human rights groups about the way its platform was being manipulated.
Whether it leads to anything but symbolic redress for the victims of the crisis remains a more open question, given the slow-moving and politically constricted processes of the international criminal justice system. While the Facebook records will no doubt produce some revelations about Facebook’s role in Myanmar and help prosecutors mount their genocide case at the ICJ, Myanmar’s military, having seized power from the country’s civilian government and defended its coup with more lethal violence, can be expected to fight any attempt at accountability.