Facebook has become embroiled in an increasingly embarrassing series of controversies over its heavy-handed censoring of user content. This will never end unless Facebook stops caving instantly to every random troll with an axe to grind.
The latest uproar involves a bunch of well-known tech blogs who have had their Facebook pages deleted after some troublemaker falsely complained they had posted copyright-infringing content.
"Got enemies on Facebook? Facebook is so eager to protect copyright that the mere accusation of copyright infringement is enough to get an account locked," wrote Ars Technica, the most prominent victim. Facebook didn't notify these sites before deactivating their pages, cutting them off from thousands of fans, and wouldn't even identify the supposedly infringing content they posted.
But it's not just copyright infringement that has Facebook springing for the big red "delete" button. Facebook's system of policing offensive content is so hypersensitive and hostile to users that it's become a perfect tool for censorious trolls and whiners. It's so weighted heavily in favor of soothing complainants that it basically amounts to an automatic heckler's veto: If people don't like what you're saying they can file a bogus complaint about your content with the click of a button and have a very good chance of getting your profile deleted.
Opponents of contentious causes often take advantage of this, banding together to report their enemies' content. Last year, sex writer Violet Blue's page was taken down after complaints by anti-porn activists. And a number of users critical of Islam have found their accounts deleted after abuse complaints filed by members of a group dedicated to identifying non-believers and chasing them off the internet.
Once trolls convince Facebook to suddenly deactivate a user's account without notice, their only hope is to navigate a Kafkaesque hell of canned email responses and unhelpful FAQs. Facebook never tells users what, exactly, they were banned for—probably to keep people from realizing exactly how ludicrous the reason often is. If a user is deactivated for copyright infringement, Facebook urges them to seek legal counsel and work it out with the person who reported them. Except Facebook doesn't check the validity of the identifying information submitted by the reporter, so it could very well be fabricated.
It's easy to see why Facebook is so trigger-happy when it comes to censoring content and taking down potentially copyrighted material. It seems so easy to ban first and ask questions never, shutting up the complainer and taking care of a potentially troublemaking user at the same time.
But in practice this approach not only stifles speech, it causes a never-ending firestorm of controversies and makes Facebook look bad. When Facebook deleted the page of an art school for posting a tasteful drawing of a topless woman it blew up all over the internet. Ditto, when they deleted a tame picture of two men kissing at the behest of some anonymous homophobic troll. One tech blog claims the troll who took down its page with a fake copyright claim demanded cash in exchange withdrawing his complaint, according to ReadWriteWeb. A new twist on Facebook-aided extortion.
Facebook and its defenders brush these off as unavoidable given the amount of content they have to oversee. Unavoidable or not, the victories of trolls in these cases show Facebook is not a very safe place for anyone who has anything remotely contentious to say. That is, practically everyone. (You may not be planning to foment any revolutions now, but neither were the leaders of Egypt's uprising when they first joined Facebook.) Maybe Facebook is OK with that—it will certainly help their impending entry to China.
But if the social network wants to keep people connecting on Facebook, it's going to have to start convincing them that they won't have their online identity destroyed—all their friends, their interactions, photos disappeared—the moment they piss someone off. The first thing to do is to start telling people in detail why, exactly, they're booted from the site. How hard can that be?
[Photos of Mark Zuckerberg at last week's Facebook town hall with President Obama via Getty]