Facebook & the limits of free speech

Facebook, who’s European headquarters are in Dublin, has been criticised lately for its selective censorship of what people post on the social media site. The company has allowed pages that endorse violence against women, while at the same time stopping homophobic, racist and anti-semitic material. Facebook has received much negative publicity for this, largely due to the efforts of some very active women’s rights campaigners. Those efforts have also had a more tangible impact on the company – the withdrawal of advertising by fifteen companies, including Nissan, until assurances were given that their ads would not appear on pages containing misogynous material.

After these developments, Facebook acknowledged its failings:

it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate.

As part of its rearguard action in how it has dealt with posts on violence against women, the company has joined the Global Network Initiative, an effort by several major information and technology companies to promote freedom of expression and privacy rights on the internet. The Initiative seeks to “advance human rights” and states that the principles which should guide the companies  are grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Here’s what it says about freedom of expression:

The right to freedom of expression should not be restricted by governments, except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws or standards. These restrictions should be consistent with international human rights laws and standards, the rule of law and be necessary and proportionate for the relevant purpose.

International human rights law is clear on outlawing discrimination, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women elaborates on the meaning of this for women. In particular, it requires changing of “social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”.

There are some heavy weight NGOs involved in the Global Network Initiative, including Index on Censoship, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch. But it was online activism, speardheaded by groups like Women Action and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, that brought about Facebook’s change of policy. Internet-based activism clearly has a role to play when you are dealing with a company for whom clicks means revenue.

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