Opinion |

Facebook's Simply Idiotic Blocking Policy

Facebook’s dragging its feet will ultimately hurt it. At some point, regulators will wake up and realize that they must impose some order.

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 22, 2016.
Has Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, joined the Israeli censor?Credit: Bloomberg
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Dear Facebook, your policy on blocking users is simply idiotic. I don’t know if it reaches this level in other countries as well, but here in Israel, you’ve managed to turn a combination of obtuseness and arbitrariness into something Kafka never imagined in his worst creative nightmares.

Here, for instance, is this week’s harvest: Yotam Zimri was blocked because he called the Palestinians stupid. Raz Tsipris was blocked because he criticized Facebook’s blocking policy. And Tali Koral, to whom Facebook apologized after it blocked her in the past, was once again blocked for three days because of a post, and then, after that block was removed, she was blocked again this week. Why this time? Because she once again wrote a post depicting prostitutes’ customers in all their shame (without identifying details).

In response to a question from Haaretz, Facebook said it has spoken with Koral and explained why she was blocked. Koral denies that any such conversation occurred.

When something like this happens, there’s usually no one to talk to; Facebook’s mechanism operates in the shadows. In the vast majority of cases, the blocked person receives a laconic message about the post for which he was blocked and a demand to abide by Facebook’s community standards, and that’s it.

Company representatives have repeatedly pledged that staffers check the posts at issue before blocking someone. Nobody is blocked solely due to the number of complaints a post generates, they say, and even one complaint can sometimes lead to someone being blocked.

As a reporter who covers the Internet, I have no interest in writing another article about how Facebook blocked someone because someone else complained about a post that upset him, or alternatively about a group of left-wing/right-wing/religious/secular people who decided to act like a self-righteous mob by generating an onslaught of complaints. But it’s also wrong to ignore these reports.

Facebook has become a preeminent and essential platform for public discussion, both in Israel and elsewhere. But its policing of posts and undermining of users’ freedom of expression shows that Facebook is fleeing this role like the plague.

It’s very nice that company representatives came to the Knesset to read out its community standards and talk about how democracy and freedom of expression top the list of the company’s values. But all Facebook is actually doing is hiding behind its vague rules and employing algorithms and censorship, which sometimes make it seem like a drunk with scissors.

To be honest, Facebook has good reason for wanting to flee its role; it’s a very difficult role. Dealing with countless bizarre and contradictory norms, taboos and triggers – just in one small country of eight million people – is unprecedentedly complicated. It’s also a thankless role, because no matter what Facebook does, it will be criticized.

Nevertheless, Facebook isn’t just an American company that can hide behind Mark Zuckerberg’s clichés and bashful smile. It’s an important public platform, a leading media outlet, and it must behave accordingly.

One might say – and many do – that Facebook is a private company whose first responsibility is to its investors, not to the users who spend all their time on it and generate its advertising revenue. Its responsibility to users, such people say, begins and ends with providing a platform that enables them to keep posting recycled memes and generic pictures of cats, so that it can continue showing them ads and watching its stock price rise. That’s a legitimate position, but in my view, it’s completely wrong.

Facebook’s policy of dragging its feet will ultimately hurt it. Perhaps not today or this year or next year, but at some point, regulators will wake up and realize that they must impose some order on this field. And when that happens, the freedom Facebook enjoys today will disappear.

Or at any rate, that’s my optimistic scenario. In the pessimistic scenario, Facebook will simply deploy its army of lobbyists, who will help it water down any regulation, and the situation will go on as it is.

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