This post originally appeared on Jillian C. York's blog.
Over the course of the past week, I've gotten reports from a number of people whose personal Facebook pages have been removed or deleted from the Facebook platform. At first, it was a male friend in Morocco. Then a female, Moroccan friend in Boston. Then an Indian woman in the UK. And then even more.
Once I investigated a bit further and spoke to each of them, I discovered what each of them have in common: All of them are critical of Islam (some are atheists, others ex-Muslims, still others reformers) and post frequently articles and status updates about the religion.
And then someone told me that a group was created on Facebook (in Arabic) for the sole purpose of reporting, and thus having removed, Facebook profiles of atheist Arabs. The group, which appears to have also been removed, was entitled “Facebook pesticide” and its sole purpose was to “identity Atheists / Agnostic / anti-religion in the Arab world and specifically in Tunisia …” Once identified, the group members would then attempt to report such users.
Of course it's problematic that there's a group of people seeking to destroy the online identities of users of a certain group, but that's not the issue I'm going to address in this blog post. Instead, I will address why Facebook's strategy toward dealing with situations like this is so problematic:
- The Facebook platform makes it all too easy for users to get other users’ accounts removed. Any user can report another user by the simple click of a button. Facebook has not spoken publicly about how this process works, but my suspicion is that when a number of users report the same user, their profile is automatically disabled. What happens next I can only speculate about, but from accounts I've received, Facebook does not contact users, rather, users may write to “email@example.com” to request their account be reinstated. Sometimes it happens, other times it doesn't.
- Facebook's Terms of Service (TOS) require users to use a real name for their profile. This gives would-be attackers a simple way to report a person's profile. In the case of Arab activists in particular, many tend to use pseudonyms because of the risks they encounter in their home countries. Therefore, it is simple to effectively report and have someone's profile removed if that's the case.
- Facebook does not inform users that their profile has been removed, nor does it tell them why. Unlike YouTube, Flickr, and other social media platforms, Facebook does not inform users that their profile has been removed (or why); it simply deletes them. The only method of recourse (sending an email to “firstname.lastname@example.org”) does not guarantee a response, and in many cases, users report never receiving one. Sabina England, whose profile was recently deactivated, says she was never given a reason, nor has she received a response to her many emails to Facebook.
- Facebook requires people to show government identification to prove they are who they say they are. Recently, my friend, activist Najat Kessler, had her Facebook profile deactivated. She wrote to “email@example.com” and received a prompt reply, the text of which read:
On Mon, Apr 5, 2010 at 5:23 PM, The Facebook Team <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
At this time, we cannot verify the ownership of the account under this address. Please reply to this email with a scanned image of a government-issued photo ID (e.g., driver's license) in order to confirm your ownership of the account. Please black out any personal information that is not needed to verify your identity (e.g., social security number). Rest assured that we will permanently delete your ID from our servers once we have used it to verify the authenticity of your account.
Please keep in mind that fake accounts are a violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Facebook requires users to provide their real first and last names. Impersonating anyone or anything is prohibited.
In addition to your photo ID, please include all of our previous correspondence in your response so that we can refer to your original email. Once we have received this information, we will reevaluate the status of the account. Please note that we will not be able to process your request unless you send in proper identification. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
The rest of this I've written about here. Effectively, the problem is this: For activists, Facebook's terms of service are simply not clear enough, and its methods for profile removal and reinstatement not transparent.
My recommendations to Facebook?
- First and foremost, offer transparency to your users. Yes, Facebook is a private, free platform, but users expect to be able to use it. It is your right to create whatever Terms of Service you want, but be clear, consistent, and transparent when enforcing them.
- Be consistent…There are multiple profiles for Jesus Christ on Facebook that have been allowed to remain, yet “Sabina England” (a very public pseudonym representing a real person) is not allowed to stay? Furthermore, why is it so important that users use their real names, anyway? Don't you realize the risks people must take in certain countries?
- Change your TOS. Telling us that we must not use Facebook in manner that “infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law” is too vague–are you referring to United States law? If yes, then say so. If not, then which law? Saudi Arabian law, for example, would require that women cover their hair. German law would ban Holocaust denial (which Facebook famously allows to remain on the site). Be clear with your users.
Any other recommendations you'd make to Facebook?
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This post was mentioned on Twitter by Media_Freedom: [Global Voices Advocacy] Facebook Deactivations http://is.gd/bkuz5…
Thanks for bringing this serious issue to light, and your thoughtful writing on the subject. I came across your article while researching surprise deactivations by Facebook. Specifically, I am interested in finding out about the kinds of photographs that have gotten people into trouble unexpectedly (a far more mundane subject than protecting one’s identity from radical hate groups!). As it turns out, the reasons for removals and deactivations due to photographs are wide-ranging and somewhat arbitrary. It appears that much like the use of pseudonyms that you discuss, Facebook’s policies are obscure and inconsistently applied.
But I believe the best (and perhaps only) way to find out what is really going on is to become friends with someone who knows the company from the inside, preferably one of its 700-ish employees. Any explanation, even from an “unofficial” or “anonymous” source, would help clarify the issue. We all know Facebook is notoriously tight-lipped about how it operates, but as the platform becomes more and more essential to work and everyday life, sooner or later someone is going to have to address these concerns. I suspect many people within the company also realize this, even if it is not publicly acknowledged. Perhaps it’s time to appeal to their common sense.