One day Facebook erased my wife and daughter. At the end of October 2019, Shir posted pictures of our child, who was then six months old, and the next day the two of them disappeared from Facebook. Without any warning or explanation, Shir’s account was removed from the social network and her Instagram account was blocked. She could not upload new posts, find out what was going on in the municipal group, contact businesses or communicate with friends. The pictures of our daughter were also deleted from my profile page.
In a response to the media, Facebook explained that the deletion was the result of a lawsuit filed against the cyber firm NSO, where Shir worked at the time. Facebook claimed that the company had hacked its servers and exploited security flaws to spy on WhatsApp users. In revenge, Facebook blocked the personal accounts of NSO employees.
In January 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to block U.S. President Donald Trump. With the press of a button, Trump could no longer communicate directly with millions of his supporters in a way that bypassed establishment media. It is possible and necessary to ask whether it was right to shut up an inflammatory and corrupt politician who refuses to accept the principles of democracy, but the fact that the ban came only after he lost the election and lost his power should set red lights flashing.
I don’t trust the judgment of the CEO of Facebook, which has harmed Western democracies and even led to bloodshed, including hundreds of dead in Myanmar. Even Zuckerberg prefers to export the problem to someone else.
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The debate over blocking Trump has been shunted over to Facebook’s “Supreme Court” – the oversight board, a body that includes many formerly famous figures, such as the former editor in chief of The Guardian and the former director general of Israel’s Justice Ministry. This board now needs to justify Zuckerberg’s decision or provide him with a proverbial ladder with which to climb down from the tree.
This month, Facebook decided to restrict the news viewed and shared by Australians on its platform, while at the same time not allowing 2 billion people all over the world to share stories from Australian sites. Over the weekend, I tried to share the story about the boycott on Australia from The Sydney Morning Herald website – but without any warning or explanation, this share does not appear in my feed.
This last step demonstrates Facebook and its executives’ lack of shame. True, Australian lawmakers tried to force the company to pay local media outlets for distributing their content – which would have forced Facebook part with a few tens of millions of dollars a year – but the policy Facebook announced harmed millions of users disproportionately, censored quality shares and prevented users from disseminating information with their social circles.
Two months ago, and after the intervention of an Israeli court, Shir’s account was restored. The requests to Facebook didn’t help, and only a lawsuit helped to restore the situation to what it had been. In a preliminary ruling, the judges decided that a commercial dispute between corporations is not a justification for blocking personal accounts, and that the employees did not violate Facebook’s terms of service.
My wife’s story may not have the public heft of the cases of Trump or the Australians, but it represents our helplessness in the face of a predatory monopoly. Facebook has become the town square, where people catch up on the news, share opinions and forge social connections – but instead of taking its role in all due seriousness, the company has been abusing its power. Legal proceedings have started in the United States to split Facebook into its three main component companies: Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. These proceedings could well take years, and in the meantime democratic countries are obligated to closely supervise the company’s actions and limit its power.