With the country's largest state prison system becoming the latest jurisdiction to ban inmates from having a social media presence, censorship of prisoner's digital speech is expected to increase substantially in the weeks and months to come.
A big problem with policies like the ban implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—beyond the violation of people's free speech rights—is that the public is only starting to learn how common it is for social media platforms to take down inmate profiles. Facebook, for example, recently published for the first time the number of prisoner pages it has suspended: "53 U.S. prisoner accounts and 74 U.K. prisoner accounts where governmental authorities identified either unlawful access to our service or safety issues."
That's where you come in. If you are managing a social media account on behalf of an inmate and suddenly find the account has been suspended or content otherwise removed, we urge you to submit a report to OnlineCensorship.org. The project, a collaboration between EFF and Visualizing Impact, draws on user-generated data to document how social media companies including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, and YouTube moderate content and the corresponding user experience when that occurs.
Launched in November 2015, OnlineCensorship.org was co-founded by EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York and Visualizing Impact Co-Founder Ramzi Jabber in an effort to encourage companies to operate with greater transparency when making decisions that regulate speech. The project released its first report in March 2016, outlining 161 takedown stories from 26 countries.
EFF expects to see a rash of inmate account takedowns as a result of the Texas prison system's ban, particularly because it forbids inmates from maintaining active social media accounts “for the purposes of soliciting, updating, or engaging others,” including accounts managed by a third party (such as an inmates’ supporters and family members). Texas officials told Fusion that they hoped the policy would help them request social media providers, such as Facebook, to suspend inmate profiles.
Policies like these threaten the First Amendment rights of people to draw attention to inmate issues. Unfortunately, Texas is not alone: Alabama has a law criminalizing the act of assisting inmates with social media, while inmates in Maine are forbidden from having their writing published on blogs.
If an account you manage has been suspended, please take a moment to submit a report. You will be asked to answer a series of questions and be prompted to include screencaptures of notifications you may have received from the social media platform about the takedown. However, you may file the request anonymously if you so choose.
This data will help us gauge the scale of the problem as we attempt to engage social media companies about defending their users’ right to free speech without government interference.
Updated May 6, 2016 : This post has been to include prisoner takedown data published for the first time by Facebook.