Free speech vs. hate speech on Facebook

Indeed, the precedent is set. Holocaust denial, for example, is illegal in Austria, France and Germany. Therefore, Holocaust denial Facebook pages aren’t viewable in those countries. But if you're in the United States, you can check out Facebook pages such as “Holohaux” at your leisure, despite the social network's terms barring “hateful” and “threatening” content. (P.S. The Holocaust happened. You know that, right?)

You can’t, however, look at images of ladies breastfeeding babies or groups supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Because Facebook takes those down.

Does your head hurt yet? Are you energized with outrage? That’s understandable. Still, when it comes to hate speech, consider giving Facebook a break, suggests Ryan Calo, legal fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. (He knows about these things.)

“Companies like Facebook have a tough time navigating hate speech,” Calo said in a telephone interview. “Not only do they have to pick winners in content, they have to do it on a global scale. If they take down content because it offends one group of people, they end up offending another group.”

You can’t accuse Facebook of censorship! No really, you can’t. Censorship is solely the province of the government, which is optimally prevented from such actions by the First Amendment — the same amendment that allows Facebook to govern what you put on its site.

Just like IRL (in real life), you can’t threaten the life of the president, as one young rube implied with an “assassination” vote soon after Barack Obama was elected. And the social network does look to the First Amendment as a guide post when it comes to content, Calo pointed out. For example, “obscene” material, as interpreted from the First Amendment, is considered “obscene” on Facebook, too.

To its credit, Calo added, Facebook tends to err on the side of allowing potentially objectionable content, even as it has the ability to block such content in countries where it’s against the law. And he advocates sympathy for the social network as it operates in a global environment, noting that values, mores and laws vary greatly between countries.

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“Today in France, they’re considering banning head scarves (for Muslim women),” Calo cites as an example for comparison. “Pakistan wants to block Facebook for one page that nobody needs to go to. It’s not like Facebook forces anyone to go look at it.”

Its dealings with objectionable content, it seems, is one area where the world could cut Facebook some slack … especially compared to the social network's other issues. “The fire Facebook is drawing over privacy is much more real than the fire over hate speech,” Calo said. “Hate speech is really hard to get right. Privacy, they’re clearly trying to move users from private to public, and that’s a problem.”

At least the people of Pakistan don’t have to worry about Facebook violating their privacy. For now, anyway.

Helen A.S. Popkin rants about online privacy, then begs you to friend her on Facebook, join her Fan page or follow her on Twitter, because that's how she rolls.

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