The Danger of Equating Social Networks to Nations

The Danger of Equating Social Networks to Nations

Three months ago I posted a response to Dan Hartrell’s article: Facebook’s grassroots earn policy voice. Dan’s article focused on the new grassroots, open approach Facebook was taking which allowed social network users to comment and vote on Facebook policies. In my response, I questioned the wisdom of having a corporation emulate a nation by taking such a democratic approach to their rule making (Terms of Service (TOS)). In my criticism, I provided some examples of the issues countries face and surmised that Facebook and other social networks may face similar issues given their new democratic approach to TOS and their nation-like persona.

Over the last couple of weeks, decisions from Facebook and Twitter regarding user content have highlighted a concern I raised in my post. Specifically, I wondered how a corporation would effectively arbitrate between user grievances.

The most heated debate is over Facebook’s decision not to disable three of five Holocaust Denial Groups. Last month, Dallas lawyer, Brian Cuban, sent a letter to Facebook requesting that they explain why Holocaust Denial Groups were permitted on Facebook. His challenge was based on Facebook’s TOS which explicitly prohibited users from posting content that violates any local, state, national, or international laws, and the fact that in many European nations, holocaust denial is a crime.

Facebook’s response was to disable two of the five groups listed in Cuban’s email.

Cuban pressed Facebook on why three of the five groups still remained. In response, Facebook representative Barry Schnitt gave an interview on CNN and email Q&A to clarify Facebook’s decision. Despite these comments, Brian Cuban (and many other individuals), remained frustrated with the decision and lack of transparency in the decision making process. In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on his blog, Cuban writes:

Mark, I would like to know who at Facebook was involved in the “internal debate”  that resulted in the decision that Holocaust Denial does not constitute hate speech.  Were you involved?  Do you offer any input in these types of discussions?  How does Facebook define “internal debate”? How many people were involved?  What was their expertise to discuss this issue?  Did they bring their personal beliefs to the table?   What safeguards were employed to ensure objectivity in a decision that is innately subjective?  Were attorneys consulted that have experience in such matters or was it general counsel?  Do you agree that something can be legal but still constitute hate speech?  Was the final decision yours?  Did the buck stop with you?

These comments emphasize my point that when a corporation, such as Facebook, tries to appear like a nation to its users, it may face many of the same issues as a nation. In this case there was very little transparency in how Facebook arrived at their decision. By having no opportunity to make submissions or respond, and no written reasons from the decision maker(s), the decision appears arbitrary – especially when two groups have been disabled but three others still remain active.

The real challenge for Facebook and many other social networks, however, is that they are not nations, but profit seeking corporations. As such, the resources required to fulfill user expectations and provide services similar to that of nations may not be available or economically feasible.  In Schnitt’s email response as to why Cuban’s original email was not addressed, he said:

We do our best to answer user questions. We are still a start-up of 800 or so employees (far fewer answering user questions) serving 200 million users. As a result, we admit that sometimes our answers may not be as comprehensive as users like and we honestly don't have the resources to engage in detailed policy debates on a one-to-one basis.

No example better illustrates this point than the recent dispute between Twitter and one of its users concerning the removal of another user’s content because it violated Twitter’s TOS. In response, Twitter released a statement saying:

Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content. For those who are interested in this debate, please note that we are engaged in editing our ToS so it more clearly states the scenarios in which we will take action.

In response to a blog on this issue, Evan Williams, CEO of Twitter, further explained:

Yes, we probably shouldn't have borrowed Flickr's TOS. Like a lot of startups, we threw something up early on and didn't give it a lot of thought. Our bad. That's why, as the service grew, we made it a priority to create a better, clearer TOS.

These comments show that Twitter recognizes that the most feasible solution to their (and I would argue others') social network discord is to simply be a conduit for content. Indeed, with vastly fewer employees (Twitter has only 43) than a nation, providing anything more than a conduit is unfeasible - even if all messages are less than 140 characters in length.