Victory for Speech: Facebook To Allow Marijuana Reform Ads
Responding to Outreach by EFF and the ACLU of Northern California, Facebook Corrects Error and Affirms its Goal of Providing a Politically-Neutral Platform for Election Issues, Including Marijuana Reform
Last week, news outlets reported that Facebook was rejecting ads by advocacy groups working on marijuana policy reform. The ads in question showed marijuana leaves, sometimes with photos of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and urged viewers to join campaigns to make marijuana reform an election issue. Several versions of similar Facebook ads were submitted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Just Say Now, but both groups were initially rejected. After EFF and the ACLU of Northern California reached out to Facebook about the issue, Facebook did the right thing and restored the ads.
Facebook has publicly established guidelines that state that a Facebook advertisement "may not promote tobacco or tobacco-related products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, tobacco pipes, hookahs, hookah lounges, rolling papers, vaporized tobacco delivery devices and electronic cigarettes." But the language from the banned ads said simply things like: "Registered to vote? Make your voice heard on historic marijuana ballot measures this November" Another read "Marijuana Reform in 2012 | Obama and Romney are mum on marijuana reform. Learn how to make them start talking." Rather than advocate for marijuana usage, the banned ads urged users to get involved with fighting for reform.
EFF and the ACLU of Northern California reached out to Facebook to draw more internal attention to the fact that the company was censoring speech that was clearly political in nature. Facebook confirmed that the ads were erroneously rejected, that they do not violate Facebook’s policies, and that they would be quickly reinstated.1 EFF is pleased by Facebook’s prompt action to correct this error and we applaud its ongoing commitment to providing a politically neutral platform for political discussion in the approaching election season. However, given this error, and the need for our intervention, we also urge Facebook to carefully audit its ad review program to ensure that similar legitimate speech is not censored from its network.
For instance, those who have advertisements rejected by Facebook can submit an appeal here. This will result in a review by additional members of Facebook, and give Facebook an opportunity to correct any human errors in its policy enforcement. Unfortunately, this form is difficult to find in the help section of the Facebook website. Individuals who have ads rejected are informed via email and provided a link to Facebook’s Prohibited Content – neither the email nor the webpage provide any information about the appeals process. To ensure that individuals whose ad campaigns are erroneously removed can quickly appeal the decision, we urge Facebook to clearly link to the appeal page on its Prohibited Content page. In addition, they should clearly describe the appeals process in the emails rejecting the advertisements, so that similar issues can get resolved more quickly.
Facebook has over 900 million users, including elected officials and even EFF using the platform for political advocacy. It has a legal right to decide whether to permit or censor speech on its own domain, but Facebook also has an opportunity to create an online space where political discussions can flourish. As more of our speech—political and otherwise—moves into online forums like reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, these companies will be faced with the responsibility of arbitrating what type of speech will and won’t be permitted. Valuable political speech such as these policy advertisements, which unequivocally benefit the public discourse, could be subject to the vicissitudes of arbitrary company policies. While we’re glad to see free speech prevailing in this case, we hope that Facebook and other Internet companies continue to rise to the challenge of providing neutral, speech-protecting platforms as political and social engagement moves from town squares to comment threads.