Facebook hit by civil rights grievances

Open letter to Mark Zuckerberg alleges censorship of human rights posts

It's been a tough week for Facebook when it comes to civil rights allegations against the world's largest social network.

First, the news site ProPublica alleged that Facebook was enabling advertisers to exclude users based on race.

Now Facebook is dealing with an open letter from 73 civil rights organizations to company CEO Mark Zuckerberg who say they are "deeply concerned" about cases where Facebook allegedly censored posts about possible human rights violations -- particularly postings about police violence.

"It is critical that Facebook be a platform that supports the protection of human rights above all else and does not discriminately apply its policies on the basis of race, creed, national origin, gender, and/or sexual orientation," wrote organizations like the Center for Media Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club and 350.org. "When the most vulnerable members of society turn to your platform to document and share experiences of injustice, Facebook is morally obligated to protect that speech."

Facebook confirmed that it got the letter.

"We have received the letter and are reviewing it," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to Computerworld. "As we recently said, we welcome feedback from our community as we begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest."

The open letter to Zuckerberg complained about Facebook pulling down iconic photographs, along with posts by black activists and reports of suppression of indigenous resistance.

The civil rights organizations said Facebook's actions set a "dangerous precedent" that silences marginalized communities. They then asked the company to clarify its policies about removing posts, photos and video.

The groups also want Facebook to undergo an external audit of the human rights effects that any "content censorship" and data sharing policies may have had.

On Oct. 21, Joel Kaplan, vice president of Global Public Policy at Facebook, and Justin Osofsky, vice president of Global Operations & Media Partnerships at the company, took on the issue in a blog post.

"In recent weeks, we have gotten continued feedback from our community and partners about our Community Standards and the kinds of images and stories permitted on Facebook," they wrote. "Observing global standards for our community is complex. Whether an image is newsworthy or historically significant is highly subjective. Images of nudity or violence that are acceptable in one part of the world may be offensive — or even illegal — in another. Respecting local norms and upholding global practices often come into conflict."

Kaplan and Osofsky said the social network will begin allowing more items that users find newsworthy and significant. "In the weeks ahead, we're going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy and significant -- even if they might otherwise violate our standards."

They also said pledged to work with the Facebook community and partners to figure out the best tools and policies.

"Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them," Kaplan and Osofsky wrote. "As always, our goal is to channel our community's values, and to make sure our policies reflect our community's interests."

As for the ProPublica allegation that Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude users by race, the publication reported that the social network lets advertisers target users by their background and interests, while also allowing them to exclude groups of users based on their "ethnic affinity."

The report noted that ads for housing and employment that exclude people based on factors like race and gender are prohibited by federal law.

The report then showed an ad that ProPublica said it bought in Facebook's housing category. The screenshot showed that they were able to exclude users from seeing the ad if they were African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.

ProPublica later updated the story to note that they had not actually bought a housing ad.

"Clarification, Oct. 28, 2016: We've updated the story to explain more clearly that the ad we bought was not for housing itself — it was placed in Facebook's housing categories," the report noted.

Facebook answered the report by saying that discrimination runs counter to what its platform stands for.

"Everyone benefits from access to content that's more relevant to them," wrote Christian Martinez, head of Facebook's Multicultural group, in a blog post. "Advertisers may also focus on reaching any group directly.... A merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products. That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant -- this is a process known in the ad industry as "exclusion targeting."

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