We are happy to see the news that Facebook is putting an end to a policy that has long privileged the speech of politicians over that of ordinary users. The policy change, which was announced on Friday by The Verge, is something that EFF has been pushing for since as early as 2019.
Back then, Facebook executive Nick Clegg, a former politician himself, famously pondered: "Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would be."
Perhaps Clegg had a point—we’ve long said that companies are ineffective arbiters of what the world says—but that hardly justifies holding politicians to a lower standard than the average person. International standards will consider the speaker, but only as one of many factors. For example, the United Nations’ Rabat Plan of Action outlines a six-part threshold test that takes into account “(1) the social and political context, (2) status of the speaker, (3) intent to incite the audience against a target group, (4) content and form of the speech, (5) extent of its dissemination and (6) likelihood of harm, including imminence.” Facebook’s Oversight Board recently endorsed the Plan, as a framework for assessing the removal of posts that may incite hostility or violence.
Facebook has deviated very far from the Rabat standard thanks, in part, to the policy it is finally repudiating. For example, it has banned elected officials from parties disfavored by the U.S. government, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), all of which appear on the government's list of designated terrorist organizations—despite not being legally obligated to do so. And in 2018, the company deleted the account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, claiming that they were legally obligated after the leader was placed on a sanctions list. Legal experts familiar with the law of international sanctions have disagreed, on the grounds that the sanctions are economic in nature and do not apply to speech.
So this decision is a good step in the right direction. But Facebook has many steps to go, including finally—and publicly—endorsing and implementing the Santa Clara Principles.
But ultimately, the real problem is that Facebook’s policy choices have so much power in the first place. It’s worth noting that this move coincides with a massive effort to persuade the U.S. Congress to impose new regulations that are likely to entrench Facebook power over free expression in the U.S. and around the world. If users, activists and, yes, politicians want real progress in defending free expression, we must fight for a world where changes in Facebook’s community standards don’t merit headlines at all—because they just don’t matter that much.