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Facebook's Censorship Problem

Last week, Facebook removed a photo of two men kissing from a user's Wall due to an apparent violation of the site's terms of service. This raises fundamental concerns about a growing censorship problem within Facebook.
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Last week, Facebook removed a photo of two men kissing from a user's Wall due to an apparent violation of the site's terms of service. Here's the message the original poster received from Facebook:


Content that you shared on Facebook has been removed because it violated Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Shares that contain nudity, or any kind of graphic or sexually suggestive content, are not permitted on Facebook.

This message serves as a warning. Additional violations may result in the termination of your account. Please read the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities carefully and refrain from posting abusive material in the future. Thanks in advance for your understanding and cooperation.

The Facebook Team

This act of censorship has received considerable attention (some worthwhile discussions here, here, here, and here). Certainly, it is within Facebook's right to try to control the type of content shared on its platform, and there are some social good to be gained through content filtering and censorship (i.e., you might want to censor child porn, or links to malware sites, etc).

But there are some fundamental concerns with this case, that point to a growing censorship problem within Facebook.

First, the message sent to the user indicated that "Shares that contain nudity, or any kind of graphic or sexually suggestive content, are not permitted on Facebook." However, if you review the site's much lauded Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, that particular language is not present. The Statement does include the directive "You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence" (3.7). Again, this is probably a reasonable restriction (although not completely without controversy). That said, no where in the Rights statement does it prohibit, or suggest a prohibition, on "sexually suggestive" content. It merely restricts pornography and nudity. Therefore, not only does Facebook misquote its own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to the user when justifying the removal of content, it misapplies said Statement.

Elsewhere, in the site's Community Standards page (and I'm not sure how Facebook has resolved the attitudes and preferences of a "community" of 600 million users into a single shared set of standards), it notes that "We have a strict "no nudity or pornography" policy. Any content that is inappropriately sexual will be removed". Again, the photo includes neither nudity nor pornography. How it violates the community standards remains baffling.

Second, let's assume for a moment that the Statement does include mention of "sexually suggestive" content as mentioned in the warning to the user. Does the photo in question fit that description? Two fully-clothed adult men kissing in public? (FWIW, the two men are actors, as the photos is a promotional image from a popular British soap opera.) While the image does convey emotions and affection, and perhaps might elicit arousal for some, the image is really no different from the thousands (millions?) of similar images of male-female kisses that exist on Facebook. Why this is considered "sexually suggestive" to such an extent that it mandates removal is beyond me.

Third, it appears that this removal was done by a (at least one) human being, and not by some automated process or algorithm. The original contributor provides a screencap of a description in Facebook's help page answering the question "Does Facebook remove everything that gets reported?". The answer provided indicates that "No. A Facebook administrator looks into each report thoroughly in order to decide the appropriate course of action..." Based on this, it appears that a human took a look at that photo, and decided it was indeed sexually suggestive or pornographic, and then removed it. I think I'd almost rather it had been an algorithm, as it is quite troubling that a Facebook admin, wielding such power, would arrive at this conclusion.

Now, interestingly, the screenshot provided of this help page notes the URL string as "/help/?faq=17292". If you visit this page now, the description has changed. Now there is no mention of a Facebook administrator, and the answer merely states "No, we remove content reported that violates our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities". Did Facebook just change this language in reaction to this event? I'll try to find out.

Fourth, if we assume that a human is indeed deciding what is "sexually suggestive" and removing photos based on his/her judgement, who is this person (or team of people), and what standards are being used? I've already done pretty simple searches on Facebook and found plenty of images much more sexually suggestive than this one (including nudity) -- and these all remain. What does "sexually suggestive" even mean? Just suggesting the existence of human sexuality in general? Does a hug with a contemporary sex symbol count? Seriously, though, while the desire to restrict nudity and pornography is reasonable, a standard of "sexually suggestive" is almost impossible to define, and apply evenly across 600 million users, each with their own sexual predilections.

Now, there are reports that Facebook has apologized and restored the image. A statement from Facebook is provided in the Advocate: "The photo in question does not violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and was removed in error...We apologize for the inconvenience." That's it. No blog posts, press releases, or broader explanation by Facebook on how such an "error" happened, what kind of content review processes are in place, or any promise to take better care. This lack of proper communication and contrition is very disappointing, but not really surprising.

What makes this entire situation even more troubling, however, is the news that Facebook is reportedly in discussions with the Chinese government in an attempt to bring the social network to the China. And, like Google, Facebook will have to play by China's rules to get this done. This means Facebook will need to implement a much more robust and aggressive content filtering and censorship policy to abide by China's wishes to limit it's citizens' access to information (and I'm sure the Chinese government would love to have access to Facebook's logs of user profile and usage data, especially related to dissidents, etc). Such a move would hardly be honoring Facebook's mission to "[Give] people the power to share and make the world more open and connected". In fact, Facebook has already noted that it is "allowing too speech in countries that haven't experienced it before". For a company dedicated to the open flow of information, expressing concern about too much free speech is counter-intuitive and problematic.

Google has struggled with its decision to engage in censorship within China, and ultimately left (although not really in a stand against censorship). Frankly, I'm not left with heaps of confidence that Facebook will be taking the proper path when it comes to global expansion into markets where censorship is the norm. If the way they treated a simple gay kiss is any indication, this could get messy.

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