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Censorship on Facebook, Or Just Abiding By Terms of Service?

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 23 2011

If, as Roger Ebert suggests, his Facebook page was taken down after he posted a controversial comment on Twitter about the death of "Jackass" star Ryan Dunn, why should you care? Here, let Matthew Ingram explain:

If critics of his Twitter comments attacked Ebert’s page by repeatedly flagging it, they effectively took the same approach some governments have taken in trying to shut down dissent: Foreign Policy magazine columnist Evgeny Morozov said recently that he knows of at least one government that flags dissident group pages as pornography in order to get them removed. Facebook has also removed pages in the past that were seen as anti-Islam or anti-Israel — in some cases reinstating them later — and has taken down more innocuous content as well, such as pages about the benefits of breastfeeding.

And it’s not just taking down pages that Facebook users are concerned about: According to a blog post from one of the organizers of a recent public anti-government protest in Britain, a number of users reported that Facebook not only blocked them from linking to a website set up by the group, but from linking to a blog post about it as well. A spokesman for the social network said this too was an error that was later corrected — but, again, what kind of error it was isn’t clear. Nor is it clear what criteria Facebook uses to make these decisions.

In emails to Ingram, a Facebook spokesman chalked all of this up to a misunderstanding. In a point-by-point explanation of various instances in which pages were removed, attributes those removals to clear violations of Facebook's terms of service — with two exceptions.

One is breastfeeding: "No policy against this at all. I’d encourage you to search the site. There are dozens of groups and thousands, if not millions, of breastfeeding photos to be found. We have removed some pictures of naked women who happen to be holding a baby."

The other is Ebert's page itself. Why was the page removed? Probably a mistake, Facebook's Barry Schnitt told Ingram. "Difficult to say."

At issue here is the way Facebook has become a central space for public conversations. Forgive the New York-centric metaphor, but Facebook is more like the atrium lobby at 60 Wall Street, the Deutsche Bank headquarters in downtown Manhattan, than a public square. It's such a part of public life as to be part of the infrastructure — one of four entrances at the Wall Street subway station for the city's No. 2 and No. 3 lines is inside the building — but inherently a private space, with private rules, and limited access.