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Facebook hit by civil rights grievances

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 2, 2016
Open letter to Mark Zuckerberg alleges censorship of human rights posts

It's been a tough week for Facebook when it comes to civil rights allegations against the world's largest social network.

First, the news site ProPublica alleged that Facebook was enabling advertisers to exclude users based on race.

Now Facebook is dealing with an open letter from 73 civil rights organizations to company CEO Mark Zuckerberg who say they are "deeply concerned" about cases where Facebook allegedly censored posts about possible human rights violations -- particularly postings about police violence.

"It is critical that Facebook be a platform that supports the protection of human rights above all else and does not discriminately apply its policies on the basis of race, creed, national origin, gender, and/or sexual orientation," wrote organizations like the Center for Media Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and "When the most vulnerable members of society turn to your platform to document and share experiences of injustice, Facebook is morally obligated to protect that speech."

Facebook confirmed that it got the letter.

"We have received the letter and are reviewing it," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to Computerworld. "As we recently said, we welcome feedback from our community as we begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest."

The open letter to Zuckerberg complained about Facebook pulling down iconic photographs, along with posts by black activists and reports of suppression of indigenous resistance.

The civil rights organizations said Facebook's actions set a "dangerous precedent" that silences marginalized communities. They then asked the company to clarify its policies about removing posts, photos and video.

The groups also want Facebook to undergo an external audit of the human rights effects that any "content censorship" and data sharing policies may have had.

On Oct. 21, Joel Kaplan, vice president of Global Public Policy at Facebook, and Justin Osofsky, vice president of Global Operations & Media Partnerships at the company, took on the issue in a blog post.

"In recent weeks, we have gotten continued feedback from our community and partners about our Community Standards and the kinds of images and stories permitted on Facebook," they wrote. "Observing global standards for our community is complex. Whether an image is newsworthy or historically significant is highly subjective. Images of nudity or violence that are acceptable in one part of the world may be offensive — or even illegal — in another. Respecting local norms and upholding global practices often come into conflict."

Kaplan and Osofsky said the social network will begin allowing more items that users find newsworthy and significant. "In the weeks ahead, we're going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy and significant -- even if they might otherwise violate our standards."


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