My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Globalization of norms: Facebook challenges Arab LGBT group

Update: After posting this, i spoke with various people involved. Investigation on the part of Facebook uncovered a poser pretending to be an admin. Their account was suspended. Facebook has assured me that they would never censor such material, even if requested to do so by a government. This is very good news.

In a globalized society, whose norms count? This weekend, Lawgeek gave me a heads up about a battle taking place on Facebook. On April 24, the administrator of the ArabLGTB Facebook Group received the following message (emphasis mine):

Report MessageDear Subscriber,

You have violated the terms of conduct you agreed upon when you signed up with Facebook.com. Your violations fall in the following criteria:

1. Advertising\spam, you have posted in the group advertisements concerning a website. You do have the right to refer to websites but not advertise them.

2. Creating a global group that is not allowed in some regions. Your group “Arab LBTGAY(Lesbian,bisexual,transexual and gay)” has put facebook in trouble as we received an official complaint from the Saudi government, the Egyptian government and other Arab governments that do not want to be mentioned.

Your Group must be shut down or a new Group with a specified network other than the two mentioned may be created. We are very sorry as we support any group but the countries mentioned are threatening to block our server from their side, therefore please comply.

Thank you for understanding
The Facebook Team

Wow. We all know that many regions in the world are extremely homophobic, but what does it mean that Facebook is going to institute policies to abide by the norms set forth by the most conservative cultural environments? Do we really want to propagate such intolerance through our networked technology?

I’m also curious as to whether or not Facebook’s policy would be a violation of American free speech laws. If there are lawyers out there reading this, i’m curious… What are the laws concerning free speech in semi-public spaces like malls and parking lots? Are commercial networked publics like Facebook and MySpace seen as public or private spaces when it comes to the law? To what degree can networked publics control or limit the speech that takes place within? Obviously, there are good reasons to limit some speech – hate speech for example. But what about speech that’s simply a violation of cultural norms? Do we have any sense of where the law sees this? Is it different in Europe? Given that there are different norms for public and private venues in meatspace, how are the lack of walls online being handled by the courts? Is this public or private? Given that all servers are owned, is there public space online when it comes to the law?

Regardless, i hope that Facebook reconsiders what it’s doing. I would hate to see it become a space that oppresses some of the most oppressed people simply because others feel that they should be oppressed. The Ivy League institutions from which it stems are some of the most progressive queer-positive environments in the country. At Brown, i met a lesbian woman who came to Brown from a very intolerant country. When she approached Brown concerning her fear for her life in returning home, they supported her in seeking asylum. In parts of the Arab world, being queer is a crime, punishable by death. Let’s support our queer Arab brothers and sisters, not further discriminate against them out of fear of their intolerant regimes.

For those who are on Facebook, i encourage you to join “The official Petition to prevent Arab LBTG from being shut down.” For all of you who work in building networked communities, give some thought to how problematic this decision is and PLEASE do not repeat it.

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9 comments to Globalization of norms: Facebook challenges Arab LGBT group

  • This feels very similar to google working with china to censor parts of the internet.

  • “Obviously, there are good reasons to limit some speech – hate speech for example. But what about speech that’s simply a violation of cultural norms?”

    Those two statements seem to be in contradiction to one another. Isn’t some “hate speech” simply a “violation of cultural norms?” I’m not denying that there is such things as genuine harassment and speech that many of us can all agree is hateful and even threatening but the line between “hate speech” and “merely distasteful” seems to be a shifting one, particularly in an international context. I understand the concern but it seems to be a very difficult prohibition to enforce, technically and ethically. And I tend to shy away from limits on speech as they are almost always Bad, particularly in common or public areas. The general guidelines professed to govern the government’s ability to restrict speech – time, place, and manner but not content – seem to be pretty good.

    Semantics aside, I empathize with Facebook as they’re in a tight spot. They have to choose between their finances and their morals. I agree that the morally right choice is to allow the group to continue to exist but there may be significant repercussions for the company and its users. Is it worth getting the service banned in those countries to stand up for these ethical and moral values? I think so. Users in those countries who may lose their access may feel differently (but I hope they do not!).

  • danah,

    I’m afraid the law is pretty clear that facebook is completely within their rights here. Even malls and other pseudo-public spaces that have become de facto town squares offer almost complete discretion to the private owners to set the rules for speech and behavior. As long as they’re not violating nondiscrimination legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they’re fine. In answer to your broader question about whether ANY online “space” guarantees first amendment protections for its “inhabitants”: unless the victim of censorship can show some kind of legal cause of action for breach of contract or workplace discrimination, there’s probably not much of a legal remedy for private censorship.

    This would be a pretty reprehensible policy on the part of Facebook. It seems likely to me that this did not get reviewed by their lawyers or their PR team before going out. The follow-up correspondence from a grunt (see the Berkeley petition message board) seems to lend some support to this theory. I suspect that Facebook is doing what YouTube and everyone else in this space has implemented as a company-wide policy: cave in immediately to bullies and bigots, and let the victims do the work to convince you they deserve to speak. Look at Wendy Seltzer’s adventures with YouTube and the NFL for another recent example of this kind of automated takedown nonsense.

  • I could be wrong, Danah, but that letter doesn’t sound like an official Facebook response to me — especially since the word “administrator” is misspelled (although admittedly that’s not out of the realm of possibility). But the followup remarks in particular, about having to expel any Saudis or Egyptians that “we pick out for you,” just doesn’t sound right to me.

  • Mathew – i got suspicious after i posted it and i’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it but i decided not to take the post down while i work on finding the answer. I’ll update it in red when i know more.

  • Facebook definately aren’t violating anything to do with freedom of speech, as the site is private property.

    Just because you have a right to free speech doesn’t mean that an obligation is imposed on someone else to publish it. Free speech doesn’t mean that I can write anything on here for instance, and expect you not to be able to moderate it.

    In fact, anything forcing facebook to keep up content would be a violation of free speech, as it is there property and it would imply that they do not have control over what facebook says as an organisation.

    Of course, the Arab countries on the other hand are violating rights to free speech (among countless other rights, but thats another story).

  • L

    Check the Facebook group again for an update:

    “It appears that you have been contacted by a user with the name ‘Adminstrator Josh’ about a group you created on our site. This person was posing as a Facebook employee and is in no way affiliated with the company.”

  • Bertil

    I’ll have to say that I agree with Kevin’s statement: things that are acceptable to you are mere “violation of cultural norms”, while things others are — for no other reason then you forcing your standards onto other people — unacceptable.

    I won’t go for the easy line “what about the day a country legalize kiddie porn or zoophilia?” — though I talked about it with a Dutch diplomat once, and it’s a really weird scenario, with little legal basis backing anything most everybody here would like to see.

    However, I would like your opinion on a Nazi memorabilia sharing group? History lovers by American standards, unacceptable hate-mongers according to French and German laws.

    I’m glad the whole thing was a stunt, but I do hope we come with an internationally acceptable position before the internet collapses because of barriers.

  • Steve

    I agree with the comments re “hate speech”. There is a cultural norm among educated Westerners that this is a Bad Thing, but worldwide and cross-class this is probably a minority opinion.

    Substantively, I think people hating other people is a bad thing, but I don’t really see that making them keep quiet about it addresses the problem, other than cosmetically. And, once we set the precedent that it’s okay to restrict some speech if it’s bad enough, then the dam is broken and others are free to try to get more speech restricted according to their various agendas.

    Like the old joke.

    Man: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars.

    Woman: Well, yes.

    Man: How about for $100.

    Woman (indignantly) What do you think I am?

    Man: Madam, we have established what you are. Now we are haggling about the price.

    By agreeing to any restriction of speech, we have “established what we are”. At that point the market is open for haggling.

    Of course, this ignores the question of government versus private regulation of speech, which I won’t address except to say that a private communication provider has a reasonable right to regulate communication content – as long as that is made clear to the customers when they accept the service. But that right should be used with great discretion.