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Facebook, Free Speech and Holocaust Denial

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, May 12 2009

"I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth."
--Historian Deborah Lipstadt, February 20, 2006, in reaction to the Austrian conviction of David Irving for denying the Holocaust.

I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. My mother, Anna, spent most of World War II in hiding, along with the rest of her family, in different parts of Belgium, where she is from. They were fortunate to be sheltered by people involved in the Belgian resistance. Many other Belgian Jews were not so lucky.

This past winter, I visited the Dachau concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich, along with my younger brother David. We were there to attend the DLD conference in Munich and had the Sunday morning free before the conference began. As soon as we realized that Dachau was literally a short ride from the center of the city on the commuter train, we decided to go. Word spread among the attendees and by the time we left our hotel that morning, about fifteen people had joined us, including Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

I am thinking about that trip to Dachau this morning, and about Randi, as I read about the current controversy over Facebook and Holocaust deniers who have created groups on the site.

Brian Cuban, the brother of internet mogul Mark Cuban, has been agitating for months to get Facebook to remove Holocaust denial groups from the site. He says they are in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, which state that any of its users can be banned if they post “any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.”

Technically, Cuban is right. By those terms, it seems obvious that Facebook can ban Holocaust denial groups on the site, as well as many many other users and groups. So far, though, it appears that Facebook has only removed two groups, “The Holocaust is a Holohoax” and “Based on Facts … There was No Holocaust,” according to this report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. These groups were using the site “as a forum to promote hate,” company spokesperson Barry Schnitt said. Other denial groups are being monitored, he said, “and if the discussion among members degrades to the point of promoting hate or violence, despite whatever disclaimer the group description provides, we will take them down.”

Facebook's seeming unwillingness to clamp down these groups is driving some noted observers to distraction. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has gone after Facebook with two searing posts, one titled "Jew Haters Welcome At Facebook, As Long As They Aren’t Lactating," which lacerates the site for being faster to move to delete some photos of women breastfeeding (because they violate the site's policy against nudity); and a second one titled, "Facebook Remains Stubbornly Proud Of Position On Holocaust Denial," which accuses the company of lacking the courage to police its own backyard and calls people like Randi "pro-Holocaust deniers." This snippet sums up his views pretty well, I think:

"The first amendment doesn’t apply to private companies. So why is Facebook so willing to take a stand when it comes to hungry babies, but won’t do a damn thing when it comes to the Holocaust."

Well, I think Michael Arrington is wrong and he ought to back off on his bullying of the Zuckerbergs. While it's true that Facebook is a private company and the First Amendment doesn't apply inside corporations, Facebook is clearly wrestling with the implications of also being a gigantic semi-public space. Mark Zuckerberg often mentions that if Facebook were a country it would be the sixth or seventh largest in the world (and we've often taken him to task here for running that quasi-country a bit like Myanmar or Qatar, and for keeping up arbitrary barriers to group organizing), but I think it's a very good thing that they aren't simply choosing the easy path of deleting the objectionable speech that appears on the site. It's a cheap shot to contrast the company's quick disposal of some breastfeeding photos that it deems too risque with its ongoing wrestling with this more difficult area of offensive political speech, and frankly I'd much rather that Facebook err on the side of freedom of speech, rather than censorship of ugly opinions.

Denial of the Holocaust is not a crime in the United States. It is against the law in about a dozen countries, mostly in Europe. But it's hard to see how making it a crime to express your belief that the Holocaust didn't happen makes the evil thought go away. Same with wishing that Israel would disappear or calling for its destruction. I've spent some time looking at a few of the Facebook groups dedicated to Holocaust denial, and while the content makes my stomach churn, I do see one benefit to them being there: Most, if not all, of the members of these groups are including their names and photos, presumably their real names and photos. (Allowing people to post anonymously would be a lot more problematic, given how anonymous speech turns incredibly venomous and violent online.) If you want to know the Holocaust deniers in your midst, you can find some of them here, out in the open. You can confront them, debate them, call them out as they go about their lives, or ignore them. Suppressing these groups or individuals will not make them disappear.

Personally, I am against making any form of speech a crime, unless it is clearly linked to acts of violence or the planning of acts of violence. The way to fight speech that you think is bad or offensive is with more speech, better speech. That's why even if I find Michael Arrington's views on this issue offensive, I would fight for his right to express them. As soon as we start convincing the hosts of de facto semi-public spaces like Facebook to suppress pure speech that it offensive to some (even many) people, we start down a slippery slope. Ezra Callahan, the eloquent Jewish Facebook employee who posted his defense of the company's current policy, earning support from Randi and other top Facebookers, and Arrington's derision, is right about this:

...we couldn't possibly show preferential treatment to one offended group over others (especially, let's be honest, given the political rumblings of such a move being taken by a company run by a prominent Jew). Should I not be allowed to start a group on Facebook called "it grosses me out to see two men kissing" because it would offend homosexuals? Should I not be allowed to start a group called "Pro-Choice people are pro-murder" because a pro-choice person would feel offended at such a suggestion? Should I not be allowed to say "Mormonism is a cult" because it offends everything a Mormon believes in? Whose sense of offense counts when it comes to deciding what to take down? And do Jews really think it will do them any good in the end to show them special treatment here?

Of course, if I thought a next Holocaust was around the corner and that Holocaust deniers were the tip of a gigantic hidden mass of Jew hatred worldwide that was on the verge of wiping us off the planet, I might feel differently, though I hope I'd still act the same way. I can understand the emotion that surrounds this issue and why people of my parents' generation in particular (or folks like Brian Cuban) feel so strongly about combating Holocaust denial in whatever way they can. But as we build our brave new internet world, let's keep it as open and transparent as possible, rather than relying on censorship to hide problems we don't know how to solve.

[At Dachau, February 2009. Photo by David L. Sifry]