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.