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Free Speech vs. Hate Speech On Facebook

Publication Date: 
May 20, 2010
Source: 
MSNBC - Technology & Science
Author: 
Helen A.S. Popkin

Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at the Center for Internet & Society, is quoted in this article on Facebook's monitoring of potentially offensive content on a global platform. Helen A.S. Popkin of MSNBC filed this story:

Despite its 400 million-plus active users, Facebook seems like it could really use a friend.

Four senators are demanding the Federal Trade Commission do something over the social network site’s increasingly open privacy policy. A newly discovered bug reportedly opened the door to hackers, allowing them to alter profile pages and make private information public. And according to a recent study, one in five divorcees say Facebook helped end their marriage.

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Does your head hurt yet? Are you energized with outrage? That’s understandable. Still, when it comes to hate speech, consider giving Facebook a break, suggests Ryan Calo, legal fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. (He knows about these things.)

“Companies like Facebook have a tough time navigating hate speech,” Calo said in a telephone interview. “Not only do they have to pick winners in content, they have to do it on a global scale. If they take down content because it offends one group of people, they end up offending another group.”

You can’t accuse Facebook of censorship! No really, you can’t. Censorship is solely the province of the government, which is optimally prevented from such actions by the First Amendment — the same amendment that allows Facebook to govern what you put on its site.

Just like IRL (in real life), you can’t threaten the life of the president, as one young rube implied with an “assassination” vote soon after Barack Obama was elected. And the social network does look to the First Amendment as a guide post when it comes to content, Calo pointed out. For example, “obscene” material, as interpreted from the First Amendment, is considered “obscene” on Facebook, too.

To its credit, Calo added, Facebook tends to err on the side of allowing potentially objectionable content, even as it has the ability to block such content in countries where it’s against the law. And he advocates sympathy for the social network as it operates in a global environment, noting that values, mores and laws vary greatly between countries.