Press Releases: May 2018
Apple App Store, Google Play Store, YouTube Among the Best at Informing Users About the Number of, and Reasons for, Content Takedowns
San Francisco, California—Facing increased demands from governments to remove user content, purportedly in the name of combating hate speech and extremism, a handful of social media and app store platforms—including the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, and YouTube—have emerged as leaders in transparency, publicly disclosing how often and why they comply with takedown requests, and notifying users when their posts are targeted for removal, an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) report found.
Others major platforms, notably Facebook and Instagram, have failed to adopt truly meaningful notice practices and policies that inform users of crucial details, like which governments have come knocking and why, EFF said in its Who Has Your Back: Censorship Edition report, released today.
Prior Who Has Your Back reports, which EFF has published annually since 2011, have focused on government demands for user data. But this year, EFF focuses squarely on how major technology companies are responding to government-requested censorship.
What people can say on the Internet is increasingly being regulated, not by governments, but by social media companies whose content moderation policies and community standards are often opaque and seemingly arbitrary. Users deserve to know if a government ordered their Facebook or Twitter post removed, how to appeal censorship decisions, and what caused their speech to be flagged by government officials. The stakes are high, especially in unstable political environments or for those living under repressive regimes. Requests to take down the content or block the pages of journalists, activists, or dissidents are often a prelude to further government targeting.
“In a time when governments around the world are putting growing pressure on online platforms to crack down on speech they consider undesirable, transparency in content moderation is needed more than ever to protect free expression online,” said Jillian C. York, EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression.
EFF evaluated publicly-available policies at 16 companies and awarded stars in five categories: transparency on legal takedown requests, transparency on platform policy takedown requests, providing meaningful notice, allowing appeals, and limiting the geographic scope of takedowns. All of the categories are new this year.
To earn a star in the first two categories, companies must regularly publish detailed information about government takedown requests, for instance in their transparency reports.
“If and when companies do comply with government requests to remove content or suspend accounts, these decisions must be transparent to their users and the general public,” said Gennie Gebhart, EFF Researcher.
The other categories evaluate whether a company offers a dispute process, notifies users of takedowns and suspensions, and reasonably minimizes the geographic scope of removals.
Two of the platforms receiving five stars were app stores: Apple App Store, and Google Play Store. Because these companies have only one type of content—apps—to moderate and operate on a smaller scale than say, Facebook, it’s easier for them to implement the requirements of this year’s report, but their choices are still good ones.
The other company receiving five stars was YouTube. YouTube’s transparency report (published by parent company Google) goes above and beyond to disclose not only the number of government takedown requests overall and by country, but also the details and outcomes of individuals requests.
With only one star each, Facebook—and its subsidiary Instagram—lag behind YouTube and other large social networks and technology companies. Besides not meeting our requirements for detailed reports on all government-requested content removal, the companies do not commit to providing meaningful notice of takedowns for all categories of content or an appeals process to dispute them. Facebook took some small steps to increase transparency recently when it made its internal moderation guidelines more public. But the fact that the social media platform with the most users still denies them more comprehensive notice and appeals is cause for concern.
“It’s encouraging that, with some notable exceptions, more and more companies and platforms are adopting the principles of transparency, notice, appeal, and limited scope with regard to government-ordered censorship,” said Nate Cardozo, EFF Senior Staff Attorney. “Without these best practices it’s too easy for the tech giants to misuse their power by silencing vulnerable speakers and also obscuring how censorship takes place and who demanded it.”
For the Report:
For more about private censorship:
For a chart of the 16 companies:
S.B. 822 Will Protect California Internet Users From Blocking, Throttling, and Data Discrimination by ISPs
Sacramento, California—On Tuesday, May 29, at 11:30 am, EFF Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon will urge state senators to pass a bill that would protect net neutrality in California.
A coalition of lawmakers, small businesses, consumer and social justice groups, and open internet advocates are holding a press conference to voice support for S.B. 822, which would require ISPs to adhere to net neutrality principles. ISPs would be prohibited from user-unfriendly practices, such as data throttling, which can force customers to pay more to get better streaming speeds, and paid prioritization, which allows ISPs to charge for some Internet services to be sped up, while all the rest are slowed down. The bill would also prohibit discriminatory zero-rating practices that violate net neutrality and threaten innovation and user choice.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener, is one of many pending in states around the country to fill the gaps created when the Federal Communications Commission abdicated its role on protecting net neutrality earlier this year. Without these protections, big telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon will become Internet gatekeepers, with broad power to favor or disfavor certain products and services.
At the press conference Falcon will urge lawmakers to immediately pass S.B. 822, which has been lauded as the gold standard for state-based net neutrality legislation. Californians, like all Americans, deserve a free and open Internet that provides a fair and equal opportunity to all comers and not just those who can pay the ISPs more money.
What: Press Conference
When: Monday, May 29, 11:30 am
Where: California State Capitol
Lawn Area 27 (Southeast side of the Capitol)
10th and L Streets
Sacramento, CA 95814
For more information about the California bill:
For more information about the fight to restore net neutrality protections:
Lawsuit Against President Trump Brought by Twitter Users He Blocked
New York, New York—President Donald Trump's blocking of people on Twitter because they criticize him violates the First Amendment, a federal judge in New York ruled today in a resounding victory for freedom of speech and the public’s right to communicate opposing political views directly to elected officials and government agencies.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute alleging the president and his communications team violated the First Amendment by blocking seven people from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account because they criticized the president or his policies. The seven individuals include a university professor, a surgeon, a comedy writer, a community organizer, an author, a legal analyst, and a police officer.
The plaintiffs were blocked by Trump on Twitter shortly after they posted tweets to the @realDonaldTrump account that were critical. President Trump and the other defendants conceded that they did so because they disliked the viewpoints the plaintiffs expressed in their tweets. U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that such viewpoint-based exclusion is “impermissible under the First Amendment.” The ruling is a win for the public’s right to speak out to public officials and engage with other members of the public on social media.
In an amicus brief filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, EFF argued governmental use of social media platforms to communicate to and with the public, and allow the public to communication with each other, is now the rule of democratic engagement, not the exception. As a result, First Amendment rights of both access to those accounts and the ability to speak in them must apply in full force.
“The court ruling is a major win for the First Amendment rights of the public on social media,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. “Governmental officials and agencies, big and small, at all levels of government, are using social media to speak to the public and allow the public to speak to them and each other. This development has brought democracy closer to the people. But the people’s First Amendment rights to see these messages and respond to them must be respected.”
For EFF’s analysis of First Amendment rights on social media:
Posts Criticizing Medical Research on Dogs Blocked, Deleted
Houston, Texas—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Texas A&M University on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for blocking comments on its official Facebook page that mention PETA by name or use certain words to criticize the university’s use of dogs in muscular dystrophy experiments.
The school, the nation’s second-largest public university by student enrollment, won’t publish any post containing the animal rights group’s name, or posts containing at least 11 words, including “cruelty,” “abuse,” “torture,” “lab,” “testing,” and “shut.” The censorship started after PETA began an advocacy campaign against Texas A&M for a medical research lab studying muscular dystrophy in dogs for the purposes of finding a cure for the human version of the disease. The lab breeds golden retrievers to develop the illness, and subjects the dogs to cruel and inhuman treatment, PETA maintains. The organization uses social media, including Facebook, to publicize its campaign.
The Facebook page of Texas A&M contains information about its educational, medical research, and sports programs, as well as its students and community members. Anyone on Facebook who visits the site is invited to “write something on this page,” comment on posts, and reply to posts by the university or visitors to the page. Posts and comments aren’t confined to university affairs—topics range from animal welfare and the environment to sexual awareness and the weather.
In a complaint filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, PETA maintains that the Texas A&M Facebook page is a government-controlled forum for speech that, under the First Amendment, can’t exclude speech based on the speaker’s expressed viewpoint. That the term “PETA”—and words frequently used in the group’s anti-cruelty campaign against the school’s dog lab—are blocked demonstrates the university’s intent to silence PETA and others opposed to animal testing from expressing their views in the Facebook forum.
“Speaker-based and viewpoint-based discrimination of speech in a designated public forum like the university’s Facebook page is rarely permitted under the First Amendment,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. "We are asking a judge to declare that Texas A&M’s restrictions against PETA on its Facebook page are unconstitutional and require the university to repost PETA’s content on the site and stop blocking PETA from posting and commenting on the site.”
EFF has taken a stand for the First Amendment rights of individuals and groups to receive and comment on social media posts used government to conduct the work of government. When federal, state, and local agencies and elected officials—even the president—use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate directly with the public about programs, policies, and opinions, the First Amendment sharply restricts the government’s ability to prevent us from receiving and commenting on those communications.
“Our First Amendment rights are infringed when agencies and officials block the posts they don’t like or agree with,” said Greene. “And the rights of all readers are affected when the government manipulates it social media pages to make it appear that its policies and practices are embraced, rather than condemned.”
For the complaint:
For more on First Amendment rights and social media:
Court Rejects DHS's Attempt to Have Case Dismissed
Boston, Massachusetts—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Massachusetts won a court ruling today allowing their groundbreaking lawsuit challenging unconstitutional searches of electronic devices at the U.S. border to proceed—a victory for the digital rights of all international travelers.
EFF and ACLU represent 11 travelers—10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident—whose smartphones and laptops were searched without warrants at the U.S. border. The case, Alasaad v. Nielsen—filed in September against the Department of Homeland Security—asks the court to rule that the government must have a warrant based on probable cause before conducting searches of electronic devices, which contain highly detailed personal information about people’s lives. The case also argues that the government must have probable cause to confiscate a traveler’s device.
A federal judge in Boston today rejected DHS’s request throw the case out, including the argument that dismissal was justified because the plaintiffs couldn’t show they faced substantial risk of having their devices searched again. Four plaintiffs already have had their devices searched multiple times.
"This is a big win for the digital rights of all international travelers," said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope. "The court has rejected the government's motion to dismiss all claims in the case, so EFF and ACLU can move ahead to prove that our plaintiffs’ Fourth and First Amendment rights were violated when their devices were seized and searched without a warrant.”
“The court has rightly recognized the severity of the privacy violations that travelers face when the government conducts suspicionless border searches of electronics,” said ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari, who argued the case last month. “We look forward to arguing this case on the merits and showing that these searches are unconstitutional.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy allows border agents to search and confiscate anyone’s device for any reason or for no reason at all. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policy allows border device searches without a warrant or probable cause, and usually without even reasonable suspicion. Last year, CBP conducted more than 30,000 border device searches, more than triple the number just two years earlier.
For more on this case:
Below is a full list of the plaintiffs along with links to their individual stories, which are also collected here:
- Ghassan and Nadia Alasaad are a married couple who live in Massachusetts, where he is a limousine driver and she is a nursing student.
- Suhaib Allababidi, who lives in Texas, owns and operates a business that sells security technology, including to federal government clients.
- Sidd Bikkannavar is an optical engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
- Jeremy Dupin is a journalist living in Massachusetts.
- Aaron Gach is an artist living in California.
- Isma’il Kushkush is a journalist living in Virginia.
- Diane Maye is a college professor and former captain in the U. S. Air Force living in Florida.
- Zainab Merchant, from Florida, is a writer and a graduate student in international security and journalism at Harvard.
- Akram Shibly is a filmmaker living in New York.
- Matthew Wright is a computer programmer in Colorado
For more on border searches:
For more ACLU information on this case:
Industry Groups' Lawsuit Threatens Public.Resource.org's Online Archives of Laws
Washington, D.C.-On Monday, May 14, at 9:30 am, EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry will argue in court that the public has a right to access, copy, and share the law—and industry groups that helped develop certain legal rules can't inhibit that right by claiming ownership in those rules.
EFF represents Public.Resource.org, a website by a nonprofit organization that works to improve public access to government documents, including our laws. To fulfill that mission, it acquires and posts online a wide variety of public documents, including regulations that are initially created through private standards organizations but later incorporated into mandatory federal and state law.
Public.Resource.org was sued by six huge private industry groups that work on fire, safety, energy efficiency, and educational testing standards. The industry groups claim copyright over parts of laws—published online by Public.Resource.org—that began as private standards, and they claim they can decide who can access and copy that law, and on what terms.
McSherry will urge the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn a lower court ruling that threatens to shut down Public.Resourceorg's online archive of laws. Private organizations must not be allowed to abuse copyright to control who can read and speak the law, or where and how laws can be accessed.
What: Hearing in ASTM v. Public.Resource.org
When: Monday, May 14, 9:30 am
Where: U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse
333 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20001
For more information on this case:
Groups Release Specific Guidelines Addressing Shoddy, Opaque Private Censorship
Washington, D.C.—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on Facebook, Google, and other social media companies today to publicly report how many user posts they take down, provide users with detailed explanations about takedowns, and implement appeals policies to boost accountability.
EFF, ACLU of Northern California, Center for Democracy & Technology, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and a group of academic experts and free expression advocates today released the Santa Clara Principles, a set of minimum standards for tech companies to augment and strengthen their content moderation policies. The plain language, detailed guidelines call for disclosing not just how and why platforms are removing content, but how much speech is being censored. The principles are being released in conjunction with the second edition of the Content Moderation and Removal at Scale conference. Work on the principles began during the first conference, held in Santa Clara, California, in February.
“Our goal is to ensure that enforcement of content guidelines is fair, transparent, proportional, and respectful of users’ rights,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo.
In the aftermath of violent protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere, social media platforms have faced increased calls to police content, shut down more accounts and delete more posts. But in their quest to remove perceived hate speech, they have all too often wrongly removed perfectly legal and valuable speech. Paradoxically, marginalized groups have been especially hard hit by this increased policing, hurting their ability to use social media to publicize violence and oppression in their communities. And the processes used by tech companies are tremendously opaque. When speech is being censored by secret algorithms, without meaningful explanation, due process, or disclosure, no one wins.
“Users deserve more transparency and greater accountability from platforms that play an outsized role—in Myanmar, Australia, Europe, and China, as well as in marginalized communities in the U.S. and elsewhere—in deciding what can be said on the Internet,” said Jillian C. York, EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression. “Users need to know why some language is allowed and the same language in a different post isn’t. They also deserve to know how their posts were flagged—did a government flag it, was it flagged by the company itself? And we all deserve a chance to appeal decisions to block speech.”
“The Santa Clara Principles are the product of years of effort by privacy advocates to push tech companies to provide users with more disclosure and a better understanding of how content policing works,” said Cardozo. “Facebook and Google have taken some steps recently to improve transparency, and we applaud that. But it’s not enough. We hope to see the companies embrace the Santa Clara Principles and move the bar on transparency and accountability even higher.”
The three principles urge companies to:
- publish the number of posts removed and accounts permanently or temporarily suspended due to violations of their content guidelines;
- provide clear notice to all users about what types of content are prohibited, and clear notice to each affected user about the reason for the removal of their content or the suspension of their account; and
- provide human review of content removal by someone not involved in the initial decision, and enable users to engage in a meaningful and timely appeals process for any content removals or account suspensions.
The Santa Clara Principles continue EFF’s work advocating for free expression online and greater transparency about content moderation. Since 2015 EFF has been collecting reports of online takedowns through its Onlinecensorship.org project, which shines a light on what content is take down, why companies make certain decisions about content, and how content takedowns are affecting communities of users around the world.
EFF’s annual Who Has Your Back report, which started in 2010, has revealed which companies are the best and worst at disclosing when they give user’s private information to the government. This year’s Who Has Your Back report will focus exclusively on private censorship issues. Future projects will examine transparency about content policing policies, with the Santa Clara Principles used as a benchmark for the minimum standards companies should have in place.
“Content takedown and account deactivation practices can have a profound effect on the lives and work of individuals in different parts of the world,” said York, cofounder of Onlinecensorship.org. “The companies removing online speech should be up front about their content policing policies. Users are being kept in the dark, voices that should be heard are being silenced forever by automation, and that must change.”
Santa Clara Principle participants:
ACLU Foundation of Northern California
Center for Democracy & Technology
Electronic Frontier Foundation
New America’s Open Technology Institute
Irana Raicu (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University)
Nicolas Suzor (Queensland University of Technology)
Sarah T. Roberts (Department of Information Studies, School of Education & Information Studies, UCLA)
Sarah Myers West (USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism)
For the text of the principles:
For more on content moderation: