How Should Facebook Deal with Offensive Groups?

For nearly a week now, Facebook has found itself in an uncomfortable position: It has had to defend the rights of Holocaust deniers who have set up incendiary group pages on the site. Today, Facebook announced that it had removed two of the pages, but the issue is likely to be revisited frequently in the future, exposing one of the grayest areas in Facebook’s Terms of Service.

Yesterday, Attorney Brian Cuban — the brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban — wrote an open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to remove all the Holocaust denial sites. While these groups might stop short of explicitly encouraging violence against Jewish people, Cuban wrote, they nevertheless promote hateful speech and egregiously inaccurate information about one of the darkest incidents in modern history.

A key passage in Cuban’s letter:

The Holocaust Denial movement is nothing more than a pretext to allow the preaching of hatred against Jews and to recruit other like minded individuals to do the same.  Allowing these groups to flourish on Facebook under the guise of “open discussion”  does nothing more than help spread their message of hate.  Is this the kind of open discussion that Facebook wants to encourage?  Is this really where you want to draw your line?

The issue has dogged Facebook for a week now. It started with an earlier post by Cuban, in which he tried to make a legal case as to why the Holocaust denier groups violated laws in some European countries. Seeing as Facebook operates internationally (not just in the U.S.), Cuban argued the groups should be removed. In addition, because Facebook is a closed network that requires members to join, U.S. First Amendment rights don’t apply as vigorously as they do on the public Web.

Facebook hasn’t relished the task of defending the groups, which it called “offensive” in several interviews with the media. In a CNN article, Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, noted the company debates the issue of controversial groups frequently. While Facebook disagrees with the views expressed on the Holocaust denier pages, he said Facebook will not remove a page unless it promotes violence or threatens an individual, which is outlawed in Facebook’s terms of service. The idea, he says, is to facilitate an open dialogue across the social network.

“It’s a difficult decision to make. We have a lot of internal debate and we bring in experts to talk about it,” Schnitt said. “Just being offensive or objectionable doesn’t get it taken off Facebook. We want it [the site] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones.”

CNET published a full-length Q&A with Schnitt that details the internal discussions Facebook has on these matters, and how the company approaches dealing with them.

Conclusion

The Holocaust represents one of the darkest moments in human history. We of course find a group that seeks to deny the existence of those awful events offensive, and we believe it offends Facebook as well.

But we also believe that, in the Facebook ecosystem, Facebook itself must act as a judicious governor that enforces a steady policy. As a company, Facebook is mostly comprised of technologists, engineers and marketers. As a result, we think its inclination to defer to U.S. laws of free speech make sense in the long run.

By having a consistent stance, Facebook won’t have to judge groups continually on an agonizing, case-by-case basis. As this incident revealed, holding firm to its terms of service won’t always be popular, but if you believe in the First Amendment, it’s ultimately the right thing to do.