Facebook: Censoring wrongly or auditing responsibly?


ANALYSIS: Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny from privacy groups since it became a significant part of many people's lives.

Recently, a few moves have baffled some onlookers. In particular, the removal of a photo showing two men kissing, and the takedown of profiles of various campaign groups over the Royal Wedding weekend.

Facebook said the first case was a mistake and the photo was not removed for any censorship reasons. It hasn't gone into too much detail on what that particular mistake was, however.

Nevertheless, it appeared Mark Zuckerberg's firm was responsible in that case given it apologised and put the photo back up.

As for the profile takedowns, Facebook based its actions on its principle of a "real name culture." This means any profile which does not represent a real individual can be removed.

Anti-cuts group UCL Occupation has taken responsibility for querying Facebook on its removal of a host of profiles, including London Student Assembly, York Anarchists, Save NHS and Chesterfield Stopthecuts, amongst many others.

In an email sent to the affected activist groups, Facebook said it was a violation of the social network's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to use a profile to represent a brand, business, group or organisation.

So if your business currently runs a profile on the site, get migrating over to a page now before admins move in.

Facebook even provides a service to migrate profiles to a page, converting friends into those who like' the organisation.

"In addition, the account associated with your profile will be converted to a business account, from which you can administrate your Page and your ad campaigns," Facebook said in the email.

If Facebook has such services and caveats in its terms to prevent profiles being used by organisations, why are there questions around whether it handled the weekend's situation effectively? Is Facebook really being responsible in auditing the service?

A real-name culture? Really?

Despite Facebook's talk of a "real-name culture," upon signing up to become a member you will not find any mention of it.

You have to fill out your name and date of birth, but there is no mention about the need to represent an individual.

It's in the terms of agreement where you'll find more information on this so-called culture. Many users won't read through the terms, even though they should, so it's here Facebook has an argument that's difficult to dispute.

"At the end of the day Facebook is offering a service and users should be aware of what will and will not adhere to the rules of using that service," the Big Brother Watch's Dominique Lazanski told IT PRO

"If users don't read terms and conditions on services like Facebook it doesn't mean that Facebook or other services won't act on behalf of their own terms and conditions."

What many affected by the weekend's profile removals want is greater transparency from Facebook, rather than doing what it wants without user consultation beforehand.

"How Facebook dealt with this particular issue, however, seems to be that it didn't use the best approach to customer service and users were upset because of the lack of transparency and communication on Facebook's part," Lazanski added.

Although Facebook does offer migration services, and has a solid defence with its terms and conditions in this particular scenario, when it comes to dealing with evidently legitimate groups who have mistakenly gone against the real name rules, the company would not inspire such vitriol if it approached with a little more tact.

Policing powers?

Whilst Facebook can happily sit behind its terms and conditions, the timing of the profile takedowns was a tad ill-judged - unless it was another mistake of course.

Facebook removes profiles on a regular basis, using its aforementioned principles as a guide, but taking out campaign group profiles around the time of the Royal Wedding, and when various anti-cuts protests are being organised, was always going to raise suspicions of censorship.

It would be interesting to learn whether users reported the profiles in question or if the social network's own systems or employees identified them. Facebook has not come forward with details on this.

Regardless of how the profiles were selected, people have claimed Facebook was collaborating with law enforcement on taking down the profiles.

"While these profiles were technically in breach of terms of use, only British anti-cuts profiles were taken down during the 12 hour period," claimed Aaron Peters, on a UCL Occupation blog.

"Given that these profiles could have been pulled on a technicality anyway, Facebook may have been quite willing to collaborate in shutting down these accounts, denying activist groups the ability to quickly organise around an event the authorities were determined to see pass off without the slightest possibility of protests or disruption. If this is the case and there has been interference from a political authority of some kind then this simply can't be permitted to set a precedent."

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, was worried police were getting powers on Facebook which they shouldn't have.

"Police could order takedowns where not appropriate," he suggested to IT PRO.

"They're allowing police to have new powers they don't deserve."

Facebook does work with police on serious investigations, but has staunchly denied working with law enforcement on any coordinated effort over the Royal Wedding Bank Holiday weekend.

Furthermore, it would be wrong to suggest Facebook had some kind of secret agenda here. Despite WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange's somewhat hyperbolic claims to RT that the social network was an "appalling spying machine" for US intelligence, the social network has evidently been a great tool for organising protests against administrations across the world. You only need look at Egypt as a prime example.

Nevertheless, it still doesn't make amends for the poor timing of the weekend's site auditing.

For a company under such heavy scrutiny from campaign groups, Facebook could have managed this situation a lot better to avoid the harsh criticism it has received.

Really, it comes down to simple common sense and better customer service something all businesses need.

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.