ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project Staff Attorney Lee Rowland wrote on the ACLU’s Free Future blog about the events of this past weekend, in which a Facebook post by the group highlighting another ACLU blog post was temporarily removed from the social network.
Facebook quickly restored the post, telling the ACLU in an email:
We apologize for this error. Unfortunately, with more than 1 billion users and the hundreds of thousands of reports we process each week, we occasionally make a mistake. We hope that we’ve rectified the mistake to your satisfaction.
According to Rowland, the ACLU posted a link on Facebook to a blog post about the debate over a statue in a public part outside of Kansas City, which depicts a nude woman taking a photo of her exposed breasts. The blog post mentioned the American Family Association’s objection to the statue, and the ACLU’s Facebook post included a photo of the statue.
The Facebook post was deleted this past Sunday, and on Tuesday, ACLU Digital Media Associate Rekha Arulanantham received word that the group was blocked from posting on the social network for 24 hours, with potential repercussions for repeat violations of Facebook’s terms of service.
Look, we’re the ACLU. Of course our Facebook posts are going to touch on controversial subjects — if they didn’t, we just wouldn’t be doing our jobs. We won’t ever (apologies in advance) post gratuitous nudity — flesh or metal — online. Anything we post illustrates a broader point about our civil liberties. And sure enough, this particular naked statue did just that by serving as a touchstone for a conversation about community standards and censorship. Thousands of people read the blog and hundreds commented on Facebook, weighing in on the censorship controversy. That is, before Facebook removed the post. The irony here is pretty thick.
As we read Facebook’s community standards, our busty statue pic was A-OK. Facebook is generally strict about human nudity, but the “Nudity and Pornography” standards also have a caveat:
Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.
According to Rowland, there was no easy way for the ACLU to appeal the deletion of its post or the ban on posts by the group, but the ACLU was able to track down a public-policy manager at the social network, who expedited the restoring of the post and the group’s posting privileges.
But like all censors, its decisions can seem arbitrary, and it also just makes mistakes. If Facebook is going to play censor, it’s absolutely vital that the company figure out a way to provide a transparent mechanism for handling appeals. That’s particularly true when censorship occurs, as it so frequently does, in response to objections submitted by a third party. A complaint-driven review procedure creates a very real risk that perfectly acceptable content (like … you know, images of public art) will be triggered for removal based on the vocal objections of a disgruntled minority. A meaningful appeals process is, therefore, beyond due.
More fundamentally, this incident underscores why Facebook’s initial response to content should always err on the side of leaving it up, even when it might offend. After all, one person’s offensive bronze breast is also one of Kansas’ biggest current media stories.
That a bronze sculpture in a public park in Kansas ran afoul of the nudity police shows that Facebook’s censors could use some calibration. And when they misfire, as they did here, there must be a process in place to remove the muzzle.
Readers: Do you agree with the ACLU’s contention that Facebook needs a better appeals process when content is censored or deleted?