Policing content on social media sites

The Internet acts like a new global commons, but crucial platforms are privately owned and subject to corporate rules.

Policing content on social media sites
Social media outlets are decentralised and privately owned, so terms of use created by corporate owners can influence what types of content are posted [GALLO/GETTY]

A year ago, after learning of numerous friends who had “lost” content on social media platforms – or had found their accounts “disappeared” for terms of use violations, I started writing a paper on the subject. That paper, Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere, was released in September 2010 during an Internet freedom conference in Budapest hosted by Google. 

It touched on examples from five American social media companies and the myriad ways in which they control and police content on their platforms.

Egypt, Tunisia bring troubles to light

Though the paper received positive feedback, its impact was minimal: at the time, there were simply too few prominent examples of account deactivation to catapult the subject into the greater public sphere.

Rewind to January 2011. As Tunisians and then Egyptians took to social media platforms to post photos and videos and send messages to their vast online networks, they – and as a result, all of us – have become increasingly aware of the issue.

Key players in the movements experienced account deactivations. In November 2010, Facebook took down the “We Are All Khaled Said” page Wael Ghonimwhen had started, because he had used a pseudonym on his own profile. Later, Hossam El-Hamalawy, a journalist, saw his content was removed from Flickr after posting photos of Egyptian security officers that were taken from the Egyptian State Security building when protesters raided the building. In Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, others have come forward with their own experiences.

Recently, I gave a talk on the subject at Berlin’s re:publica 11 conference drawing on those and other recent examples. I made the point that the problem lies in what purposes these social media sites – and perhaps others – were meant to serve, and the reality of how they’re now used.

Facebook, built by a Harvard undergraduate student, was intended as a “yearbook” of sorts – a means by which students could connect with their classmates. Yet the site has scaled up: it moved first to other universities, then high schools, then the world. Its purpose shifted from one of a directory and social gathering site to being a veritable public sphere.

It is a place where democratic activists and not-so-democratic players share space. It is a place where so-called enemies – Azeris and Armenians, Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis – befriend one another against the odds. It is a place where conflicting ideas can be fleshed out.

A ‘quasi-public’ sphere

And yet, this “public sphere” is in fact a quasi-public sphere, ruled not by governments but by corporations. It is decentralised and privately owned, allowing for whatever corporate standards or terms of use a given company desires to create. 

Those terms mean that users can find their accounts deactivated for any number of violations – from sending too many messages in a short period of time on Facebook to uploading photos taken by someone else to Flickr. 

Sometimes the rules make sense, (like when YouTube insists on placing a warning page in front of videos containing graphic violence) and other times they’re seemingly arbitrary.

Chinese activist and journalist Michael Anti experienced one of the more odd terms of enforcement recently when his Facebook account – which he had been using for several years – was deleted for use of a pseudonym. Anti, whose real name is Jing Zhao, lost his content, along with the thousands of contacts he had collected over the years.

While Anti has spoken out against the company’s policy, Facebook claims that demanding real names from users makes for a safer environment.

Illusions of a borderless world

Whereas five years ago Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu spoke of “illusions of a borderless world” with respect to state control of the Internet, today those concerns are compounded by private ownership of our most public of spaces.

Of course, this is no new concern: corporate-owned media has long dominated the civic public sphere. In the United States, at least, we’ve long faced the shift of public spaces to privately-owned ones. Just like online, “private publics” (or the quasi-public sphere) are places where the law does not reach, and corporate guidelines take over.

Ultimately, social media sites exist because their users recognize their value as the”public commons”. In fact, these sites are the only true global commons, places where anyone from anywhere can gather together, laugh, share ideas, and yes, create political movements. And if those spaces are restricted – blocked by governments, for example – humans suffer. 

Surely, as we’re aware that these spaces are not truly public, we may just leave and take our content elsewhere. But because of the vastness of the network – Facebook, for example, is over 500 million users strong – it just isn’t that simple. Still, if companies don’t start listening to their users and adapting their policies to fit the needs of the consumers, that may very well be what happens.

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.