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Facebook is under pressure to take a stand on groups that want to use its pages to air views that are at best controversial and at worst hateful.
A series of blogs brought the issue to light when they decried the proliferation of groups on Facebook that endorse the idea that the Holocaust didn't occur. "The Holocaust denial movement is nothing more than a pretext to allow the preaching of hatred against Jews and to recruit other like-minded individuals to do the same," Dallas attorney Brian Cuban wrote in a May 10 "Open Letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg."
The presence of Holocaust deniers on Facebook underscores the challenge faced by social media in cases where content is offensive but may not overtly violate laws or a site's terms of service. Facebook and other social networking sites, for example, prohibit pornography and hate speech but are reluctant to ban groups simply because their views are inflammatory. "All of the fault lines of society and all of the hatemongering that existed long before Facebook was ever even conceived have now moved front and center to their corporate reality," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international human-rights organization.
After extensive internal debate, Facebook opted not to remove the groups. "The mere statement of denying the Holocaust does not constitute a violation of our policies," says Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt, noting that users are forbidden from posting material that is "hateful" or "threatening." It later removed two of the groups identified as offensive by Cuban after users posted comments to those pages that did violate service terms. Cuban is the brother of investor, blogger, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Controversy surrounding speech on Facebook won't end with the removal of a handful of offensive groups. A report slated for a May 13 release by the Simon Wiesenthal Center will shine added light on hate speech on the Web. The number of Web pages and shared online documents promoting racism or other forms of hatred has surged to 10,000, a 25% increase from last year, according to the report. Cooper estimates that Facebook is the biggest venue, accounting for about 30% of all these online instances of hate.
David Ardia, an attorney and director of the Citizen Law Project at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says that by allowing controversial groups, Facebook is acting well within its rights. "Facebook can decide what's appropriate for its users," Ardia says. The social network was lambasted by bloggers who said its reluctance to ban the groups was cowardly. "If Facebook doesn't want to take a moral or ethical stand on the issue, they can easily make a case that the groups violate their terms of service," tech blogger Michael Arrington wrote on May 10. Unlike other forms of speech, Holocaust denial has been outlawed in several countries, including France.
Facebook has come under attack in the past for hosting anti-Gypsy groups. The site currently contains several groups defending "white pride."
In February, Cooper met with Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, to discuss the existence of offensive content. He brought along a PowerPoint presentation filled with examples of potentially hateful material on the site. "The scope of it at this point may be overwhelming them somewhat," Cooper says.
Facebook's Schnitt says the company does not actively patrol for such content; instead, Facebook relies on users to flag objectionable material. That list goes before a team that is trained to "use their judgment" to delete or permit each item based on guidelines drafted by the company's lawyers and communications staff, Schnitt says. In exceptional cases, including Holocaust denial groups, the operations staff escalates content for the higher-ups to debate.
At the same time, the company seeks outside counsel. "We don't pretend to know everything," Schnitt says. The company regularly meets with groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as government agencies such as the State Dept., to help inform its view of what should and shouldn't be permitted.
Cooper says he disagrees with Facebook's view that the Holocaust denial groups on its site are not threatening. "Holocaust denial in the Muslim world is a way to express hatred for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and to call a group of people a bunch of liars, and it is a threat," Cooper says.
Of course, Facebook isn't alone in having to deal with controversial or offensive groups and other content. It and other companies, including Twitter and News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace, may have to get more explicit about their policies, rather than continue to debate what can be considered "hateful." "As we see in the [Facebook] terms of service, they have very broad discretion," says Harvard's Ardia. "They can describe other things which are far less hateful. So far, Facebook has been very circumspect in exercising that control but they don't have to be."
Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.