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Free speech vs. hate speech on Facebook

Turns out in Pakistan, if Facebook does something people don't like, they actually stop using it.
Image: Pakistani students chant slogans during a rally against Facebook page
Pakistani students chant slogans during a rally against Facebook page amid anger over a page which encourages users to post images of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.K.m. Chaudary / AP
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Despite its 400 million-plus active users, Facebook seems like it could really use a friend.

Four senators are demanding the Federal Trade Commission do something over the social network site’s increasingly open privacy policy. A newly discovered bug reportedly opened the door to hackers, allowing them to alter profile pages and make private information public. And according to a recent study, one in five divorcees say Facebook helped end their marriage.

Yet these complaints pale in comparison with today’s epic Facebook fail. At least if you live in Pakistan. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s government ordered Internet services to block Facebook over “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” a user-posted page that encourages others to draw a picture of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, an act prohibited by the religion, and found offensive by more than just the government.

[Update: Public protests against Facebook continued on Thursday, and access to YouTube and more than 450 Web sites, are now blocked for anti-Islamic content, according to a Pakistan government statement. Wikipedia and Flickr may be included among the sites, though it is not yet clear if inaccessibility is due to a glitch or deliberate ban.]

Turns out in Pakistan, if Facebook does something people don't like, they actually stop using it. According to the Associated Press, about 2,000 female students rallied in Karachi against the social network, and several dozen male students gathered with signs “urging Islamic holy war against those who blaspheme the prophet.” When it comes to “Terms and Conditions,” navigating “hate speech” is a bigger challenge what to do about your previously “private” profile information.

So what’s the largest social network in the history of the universe to do?  Facebook is still thinking about it. According to company representative Andrew Noyes, the “Draw Mohammed” page does not violate the site’s terms, but the company understands it may not be legal in some countries. “In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries,” Noyes stated via e-mail.

Indeed, the precedent is set. Holocaust denial, for example, is illegal in Austria, France and Germany. Therefore, Holocaust denial Facebook pages aren’t viewable in those countries. But if you're in the United States, you can check out Facebook pages such as “Holohaux” at your leisure, despite the social network's terms barring “hateful” and “threatening” content. (P.S. The Holocaust happened. You know that, right?)

You can’t, however, look at images of ladies breastfeeding babies or groups supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Because Facebook takes those down.

Does your head hurt yet? Are you energized with outrage? That’s understandable. Still, when it comes to hate speech, consider giving Facebook a break, suggests Ryan Calo, legal fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. (He knows about these things.)

“Companies like Facebook have a tough time navigating hate speech,” Calo said in a telephone interview. “Not only do they have to pick winners in content, they have to do it on a global scale. If they take down content because it offends one group of people, they end up offending another group.”

You can’t accuse Facebook of censorship! No really, you can’t. Censorship is solely the province of the government, which is optimally prevented from such actions by the First Amendment — the same amendment that allows Facebook to govern what you put on its site.

Just like IRL (in real life), you can’t threaten the life of the president, as one young rube implied with an “assassination” vote soon after Barack Obama was elected. And the social network does look to the First Amendment as a guide post when it comes to content, Calo pointed out. For example, “obscene” material, as interpreted from the First Amendment, is considered “obscene” on Facebook, too.

To its credit, Calo added, Facebook tends to err on the side of allowing potentially objectionable content, even as it has the ability to block such content in countries where it’s against the law. And he advocates sympathy for the social network as it operates in a global environment, noting that values, mores and laws vary greatly between countries.

“Today in France, they’re considering banning head scarves (for Muslim women),” Calo cites as an example for comparison. “Pakistan wants to block Facebook for one page that nobody needs to go to. It’s not like Facebook forces anyone to go look at it.”

Its dealings with objectionable content, it seems, is one area where the world could cut Facebook some slack … especially compared to the social network's other issues. “The fire Facebook is drawing over privacy is much more real than the fire over hate speech,” Calo said. “Hate speech is really hard to get right. Privacy, they’re clearly trying to move users from private to public, and that’s a problem.”

At least the people of Pakistan don’t have to worry about Facebook violating their privacy. For now, anyway.

Helen A.S. Popkin rants about online privacy, then begs you to friend her on , join her Fan page or follow her on , because that's how she rolls.