Thu, Dec 16, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Facebook on front line of free speech

Decisions by Facebook not to remove material related to Holocaust denial or pages critical of Islam and other religions have annoyed advocacy groups and prompted some governments to block the site

By Miguel Helft  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, likes to say that his Web site brings people together, helping to make the world a better place, but Facebook is not a utopia and when it comes up short, Dave Willner tries to clean it up.

Dressed in Facebook’s quasi-official uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, the 26-year-old Willner hardly looks like a cop on the beat. Yet he and his colleagues on Facebook’s hate and harassment team are part of a virtual police squad charged with taking down content that is illegal or violates Facebook’s terms of service. That puts them on the front line of the debate over free speech on the Internet.

That role came into sharp focus last week as the controversy about WikiLeaks boiled over on the Web, with coordinated attacks on major corporate and government sites perceived to be hostile to WikiLeaks.

Facebook took down a page used by WikiLeaks supporters to organize hacking attacks on the sites of such companies, including PayPal and MasterCard. It said the page violated the terms of service, which prohibit material that is hateful, threatening or pornographic, or incites violence or illegal acts, but it did not remove WikiLeaks’ own Facebook pages.

Facebook’s decision in the WikiLeaks matter illustrates the complexities that the company grapples with, on issues as diverse as that controversy, verbal bullying among teenagers, gay-baiting and religious intolerance.

With Facebook’s prominence on the Web — its more than 500 million members upload more than 1 billion pieces of content a day — the site’s role as an arbiter of free speech is likely to become even more pronounced.

“Facebook has more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at The George Washington University who has written about free speech on the Internet. “It is important that Facebook is exercising its power carefully and protecting more speech rather than less.”

However, Facebook rarely pleases everyone. Any piece of content — a photograph, video, page or even a message between two individuals — could offend somebody. Decisions by the company not to remove material related to Holocaust denial or pages critical of Islam and other religions, for example, have annoyed advocacy groups and prompted some foreign governments to temporarily block the site.

Some critics say Facebook does not do enough to prevent certain abuses, like bullying, and may put users at risk with lax privacy policies. They also say the company is often too slow to respond to problems.

For example, a page lampooning and, in some instances, threatening violence against an 11-year-old girl from Orlando, Florida, who had appeared in a music video, was still up last week, months after users reported the page to Facebook. The girl’s mother, Christa Etheridge, said she had been in touch with law enforcement authorities and was hoping the offenders would be prosecuted.

“I’m highly upset that Facebook has allowed this to go on repeatedly and to let it get this far,” she said.

A Facebook spokesman said the company had left the page up because it did not violate its terms of service, which allow criticism of a public figure. The spokesman said that by appearing in a band’s video, the girl had become a public figure and that the threatening comments had not been posted until a few days ago. Those comments, and the account of the user who had posted them, were removed after the New York Times inquired about them.

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