Why Facebook Failed Our Censorship Test
If you click around Facebook’s “Government Request Report,” you’ll notice that, for many countries, Facebook enumerates the number of “content restrictions” the company has fulfilled. This is a sanitized term for censorship.
For example, Facebook restricted access to three items of content on its site to comply with Brazilian court orders. Facebook restricted access to 15 pieces of content to comply with Israeli laws banning Holocaust denial. Facebook restricted access to 3,624 pieces of content in Turkey and another 5,832 pieces of content in India, all under a variety of nefarious censorship laws.
But if you click over to the United States, Facebook’s home country, you’ll find that the “content restrictions” category is conspicuously missing.
This is odd, considering that Facebook has been suspending the accounts of inmates in the U.S. for at least four years at the behest of prison officials. Facebook even had an easy and confidential “Inmate Takedown” form corrections officers could fill out to make the profiles disappear.
We know for a fact that Facebook processed 74 requests for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation alone in 2014. Between California and the state of South Carolina, we also know Facebook processed more than 700 takedown requests over the last four years. We could file public records requests in all 50 states to learn more, but since Facebook’s system allowed prisons to file these requests without creating a paper trail, only Facebook knows how many requests it has complied with nationwide. We believe it may reach into thousands.
In direct response to Facebook’s secrecy, as well as inconsistencies in Facebook’s explanations of the takedown process, we have added a new category to “Who Has Your Back?”, our annual scorecard that evaluates how companies handle government requests. To earn a star in the category for “Disclosing Government Content Removal Requests,” companies do not have to reject government requests, but just be transparent about how they handle these requests.
As we write in the report, Twitter’s transparency report is a particularly good example; not only does the company produce the data, but it publishes an interactive map that users can explore to review details about content removal requests. Google also provides data about government requests to remove content, including dozens of examples with information on the nature of the request and the outcome.
Facebook is somewhat unique when it comes to prisoner takedown requests. Based on information we have received through public records requests filed in several states, inmates are more often caught using Facebook than any other service. But this isn’t just about prisoner accounts. The fact that Facebook has not been reporting these takedown requests raises larger questions about what other kinds of censorship Facebook has been hiding.
In its report, Google gave examples in the U.S., such as a request from a law enforcement officer asking the company to remove a link to a negative news story from its search results and a request from a government agency to remove an allegedly defamatory video about a school administrator. (Google complied with neither request, but included both in its transparency report.)
If Google received requests to takedown this kind of content, then we believe it is highly likely that Facebook has received them as well. In the coming months, we may even see more direct evidence of this through crowdsourced reports at OnlineCensorship.org, an alpha-stage project co-founded by EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian York.
In preparing 2015’s Who Has Your Back? report we gave Facebook multiple opportunities to come clean about government requests to suppress content. Although the company did overhaul its inmate takedown process, it still refuses to release top line numbers for the United States.
It’s too late for Facebook to earn a star in this category for 2015, but there’s still time for Facebook to establish trust with its users. We urge Facebook to publish the data and show U.S. government agencies that censorship shouldn’t happen in the dark.