How social network policies are changing speech and privacy norms

Is the proprietary nature of online speech poised to change cultural norms?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rings bell
The sovereignty of corporate leaders like Zuckerberg challenges and even extends the sovereignty of the state when it comes to online speech [EPA]

Over the past few years, tech blogs have been rife with stories about social media companies banning users or removing their content. These companies have their own proprietary terms of service that allows them to regulate speech on their platforms as they see fit, and they do: A quick look at the rules of major social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr show rules that go well beyond law in the US (where all three companies are based) as well as, in some cases, the principles laid out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Though these companies do face legitimate challenges in grappling with legal requests from foreign countries, it is their own rights as companies – not the long arm of the law – that pushes them to go beyond the law in choosing what speech to allow on their platforms. 

While examples of such overreaching corporate behaviour abound, the problem has been brought into sharp focus with the financial blockade of WikiLeaks, an extralegal decision by corporate giants Visa, MasterCard and PayPal that some say occurred in collusion with the US government. 

Rebecca MacKinnon, is among those who have called out these social networking behemoths on their bad behaviour, referring regularly to Mark Zuckerberg as “the sultan of Facebookistan”. In her book, Consent of the Networked, she posits that the sovereignty of corporate leaders like Zuckerberg challenges and even extends the sovereignty of the state when it comes to online speech. 

MacKinnon’s work has undoubtedly raised awareness of the issue. In a report just published by the Center for International Media Assistance, author Bill Ristow lays out the challenges of regulation faced by such companies, and concludes: 

It’s not enough to tell users, in effect, “trust us”. Without violating legitimate proprietary concerns, there is certainly room for a more publicly visible form of internal review covering how these corporations are interacting with countries around the world in making their gatekeeping decisions. 

Anonymity takes a hit 

But despite a growing movement toward pushing companies to be more mindful of their role as the new gatekeepers of speech, the companies are able to draw support from sometimes surprising places. In a recent opinion piece for Privacy Perspectives, the blog of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Christopher Wolf – the National Civil Rights chair for the Anti-Defamation League – argues that “internet intermediaries can play a role, in appropriate circumstances, to limit online anonymity in an effort to curtain online hate”. 

Acknowledging that the law is “a poor tool to deal with [hate speech],” Wolf stands on the graves of the victims of the recent attack in Boston to further his case for denying the right to anonymity (protected by the First Amendment) online. 

Wolf’s comments echo those of former Facebook staffer and sister to Mark, Randi Zuckerberg, who once stated that online anonymity “has to go away”. For his part, the sultan of Facebookistan has claimed that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”. 

But why, exactly? While many activists will rightly argue that anonymity is not a strong basis for starting a movement, few deny its importance as a right. Anonymity can produce hate, but it can also produce creativity. It can hide criminal behaviour, but it can also protect dissidents from their ever-more-tech-savvy governments.  

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Given that our anonymity is not truly protected when using these tools anyhow – one need only look to the Petraeus case to see how difficult it is to hide one’s identity – the question must be asked: Why are companies, and their supporters, insistent that users provide their “real” names publicly? 

While companies often argue that it is a matter of promoting “civility” (an unproven idea), it seems just as likely that such policies are aimed at enriching the companies’ data mining and advertising endeavours. The more information a company has about its users, the more able they are to market to them. 

Changing norms? 

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that privacy is “no longer a social norm”, claiming that it is “just something that has evolved over time” as a result of social networking.  But although Facebook cannot take all the credit for that, the very infrastructure it has encourages its users to share private details about their lives: fields for “relationship status”, “favourite television programmes” and all sorts of other details that would previously have only been shared amongst friends and family are hardcoded into Facebook’s interface. 

Similarly, Facebook’s policy for acceptable images famously excludes images of mothers breastfeeding their children (although the most recent edition of the site’s community standards claims that Facebook “aspire[s] to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding”). This has led to outrage from mothers in countries where breastfeeding in public is an accepted norm, and to accusations that Facebook’s views on propriety are too American for a site with a global user base. 

Facebook has also removed images posted by breast cancer survivors; in February, the site backtracked after removing a photo of a tattoo by a woman who had had a double-mastectomy, writing “Mastectomy photos don’t violate our content standards and are permitted on the site”.  The statement is a positive step for the company, but complaints of similar takedowns persist. 

Questions have also arisen over whether US companies should host content from terrorist organisations. Among the questions involved in such a decision are the legal implications of an American company hosting speech from organisations on the US government’s official list of “designated foreign terrorist organisations”. US citizens are banned from most types of transactions (financial or otherwise) with organisations on the list, but those rules do not generally apply to citizens of other countries. 

This is not merely a reference to the old adage that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, but a serious question in an age when the US government designates as terrorist a group that, in another country, is a legitimately popular political party. Though Hezbollah in particular seems to be going strong on social networks, Twitter has been accused of removing the accounts of al-Shabab (a designated terrorist group) and the Syrian Electronic Army, for example. 

Be it nudity or hate speech, banned groups or breastfeeding, our online speech is increasingly not ours. It is time to ask the question: Is the proprietary nature of online speech poised to change cultural norms?

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork