Facebook has a “hate and harassment team” and free speech on the web

December 13th, 2010

From the New York Times:

Dressed in Facebook’s quasi-official uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, the 26-year-old Mr. Willner hardly looks like a cop on the beat. Yet he and his colleagues on Facebook’s “hate and harassment team” are part of a virtual police squad charged with taking down content that is illegal or violates Facebook’s terms of service. That puts them on the front line of the debate over free speech on the Internet.

So how does this hate and harassment team operate?

“Most of the hateful content was coming from fake profiles,” said James Mitchell, who is Mr. Willner’s supervisor and leads the team. He said that because most of these profiles, created by people he called “trolls,” were connected to those of other trolls, Facebook could track down and block an entire network relatively quickly.

Using the system, Mr. Willner and his colleagues silenced dozens of troll accounts, and the page became usable again. But trolls are repeat offenders, and it took Mr. Willner and his colleagues nearly 10 days of monitoring the page around the clock to take down over 7,000 profiles that kept surfacing to attack the Spirit Day event page.

Free Speech you ask? But the First Amendment does not apply to private actors. There is no free speech on the Tubes.

Well, not everyone agrees with that:

With Facebook’s prominence on the Web — its more than 500 million members upload more than one billion pieces of content a day — the site’s role as an arbiter of free speech is likely to become even more pronounced.

“Facebook has more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University who has written about free speech on the Internet. “It is important that Facebook is exercising its power carefully and protecting more speech rather than less.”

OK Professor Rosen. Who is to say if Facebook is “exercising its power carefully?” You? The Supreme Court? Further, if Facebook ceases to exercise this power carefully (by whatever standard), what should be done about it?

Before anyone complains about a double standard between Google (which I routinely criticize) and Facebook, I think there is a big distinction. Google is in the business of collecting and aggregating information from the Tubes and the real world (street view). Facebook is a place where people–not Facebook–deposit information. If you upload information to Facebook,that’s your problem. If someone who knows something about you uploads it to Facebook, not much you can do about it. That’s where “hate and harassment” teams can come into play. If Google finds information about you without you knowing about it, that’s different.