Free speech. Always an emotive topic. Two incidents came up on my Twitter timeline. Tom Pride apparently had a post marked as spam by Facebook on the word of someone working for Job Centre Plus. His post was a satirical dig at Atos and the DWP. Scriptonite Daily also found herself marked as spam for posting about Artist Taxi Driver’s protest against the privatisation of the NHS.
I see the spam button and other complaints mechanisms as being like the button which fires the nuclear missiles. I’ve acted for clients wrongly reported to eBay and Amazon by vindictive competitors. I’ve also acted for genuine victims of intellectual property infringement and for providers of content services and forums. The balance of rights on the internet is a difficult one but in many cases, the provider takes the word of the complainant and the burden of proof is on the person complained of. Providers of internet services (confusing terminology alert: not isp’s) are scared of the consequences if they don’t act swiftly to remove content which is complained about. They’re scared, for example, of claims for intellectual property infringement by companies as big as they are and for defamation. They’ve even got cause to fear criminal sanctions: directors of Google Italia were prosecuted after a video of a young disabled boy being attacked was posted on Youtube and not removed quickly enough once people started to complain. They (inadvertently) published a hate crime. That case is still rolling on, years after the video was posted, hanging over people’s heads. They were convicted, they successfully appealed but as of this month their Global Privacy Counsel blogged that the Italian prosecutor is now taking the appeal up to the Supreme Court. They’re not wrong to fear those things. Cover your ass is bound to be the mantra in back rooms, no matter what sites might say in public about the importance of free speech and the sharing of content.
A swift peek at Google showed Facebook has quite a track record of censoring supposed spam. British victims of the policy may be slightly reassured to learn Americans have been complaining about this for some time. One man wasn’t even allowed to publish a list of Obama’s achievements during his first term in office. How the hell is that reassuring? Because Christians on the right are out there complaining about the same thing. It seems Facebook has suffered from a hyperactive filter in the past, with content being automatically marked as spam. It also seems that Facebook is an equal opportunities censor of content which is manually complained about. Left complaining about right, right complaining about left, government employee complaining about satirist. Round and round we go. What do we expect Facebook to do other than follow the time honoured tradition of covering its own ass.
What’s absurd about the situation is the concept that something one person doesn’t like can be classified as spam. Privacy laws matter, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a world of difference between the prevention of direct contact with other users to sell them things they don’t want and an individual posting a link to their own blog on their own wall. If someone you know likes it and it ends up in your news feed, that’s not spam. It’s a properly functioning social media site. If what’s written offends you so much you decide to unfriend the person whose “like” brought it to your attention, fine. Do that. Ditto if your “friend” posts a link to content you don’t like by a third party on their wall. This is precisely why complaints are like that big red button though. It’s so easy for the complainant. Where does it stop? How far do Facebook and others allow rival political factions to go before they have to step in and pull a Herod? Imagine applying the six degrees of separation rule to this problem. I complain about you. You ask a friend to complain about me. I ask a friend to complain about them and so on and so on until we reach the point of mutually assured destruction. Only bland, beige content featuring people’s cats and babies would be left. My personal opinion is that spam reporters should grow the fuck up. Spam reporters who report on behalf of their employers without their knowledge or consent (particularly when that employer is a state entity) need training on what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour because, when it’s a state agency being dragged into the web of pettiness that is spam reporting, the situation becomes more dangerous. It interferes with free speech. It’s a cheap, nasty and utterly inappropriate shortcut to shut people up when it wouldn’t be possible to get an injunction to do so. In cover your ass terms, Job Centre Plus should consider whether they want theirs hanging in the wind if a blogger claims they’re responsible for the actions of their employees on social media like Facebook.