Censorship comes in many forms. Most often, when we talk about it at EFF, we’re talking about the measures that governments take to restrict their citizens’ freedom of expression or access to information. Online, that can mean blocking websites, restricting the right to anonymity, or shutting down the Internet, among other things.
But as our speech increasingly takes place on social media platforms—like Facebook or Twitter—so has our thinking about censorship. And while we still believe that companies have a right to restrict content on their platforms, we also believe that they have a moral obligation to consider the implications of doing so. Companies should do their best to uphold the spirit of free expression and minimize harms that their policies might have to innocent users.
Onlinecensorship.org—a joint project of EFF and Visualizing Impact—launched at the end of 2015 to document social media censorship and hold companies accountable for their actions. In the past year, we’ve learned a great deal about how users perceive and are impacted by censorship on a number of platforms, as well as what types of content are commonly taken down.
One of the more interesting things to emerge from our research is just how seriously this kind of censorship can affect social media users. Several years ago, when EFF was just beginning to look at this issue, companies like Facebook were much smaller, making it easier to suggest that users simply find another platform on which to express themselves. Today, companies like Facebook and Google have integrated their services across so much of the web that leaving isn’t so easy.
In Onlinecensorship.org’s most recent paper, we highlight some of the most egregious examples of content takedowns on social media from 2016, including the censorship of the iconic Terror of War image, and the bizarre account deactivation that occurred as the result of sharing a cat photo.
In addition to these examples, 2016 saw the emergence of new trends, most notably the censorship of live videos. In July, the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota hit national headlines, in part because Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, had managed to livestream the incident...until Facebook cut her off. Although the company later apologized, similar censorship incidents occurred throughout the year.
As we move toward a new year, we will continue to monitor content takedowns through Onlinecensorship.org (where we’ve recently revamped our user survey to include more platforms) and keep you informed.
This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2016.