Big Brother Is Listening To Your Concerns? Facebook Quietly Reverses Censorship Following Coverage

By April 20, 2012

Image: Morguefile

Thank you for contacting the Thought Police. That is, we were listening in and we think you made some good points. We appreciate your feedback and have already taken action.

It appears that Facebook was censoring links to a news story for an unknown period of time, and then lifted the block after that practice came to light, raising interesting questions about the prominent social network’s ability to constrict, as well as spread, information.

The Guardian‘s James Ball wrote an article about TVshack founder Richard O’Dwyer’s legal fight against extradition to the United States. But blogger James Losey noticed that something strange was going on: Facebook was blocking links to the story, marking them “spammy or unsafe.”

“By blocking the text of an article from being shared Facebook is declaring that it is not permissible speak to discuss that this website exists, debate its legality, or the legitimacy of this case with in the space Facebook has define,” Losey wrote.

The plot thickened when, just a day later, links to the story started working again, with no official explanation. Due to the timing, it seems likely that Facebook employees noticed coverage of the censorship debacle, and removed the filter – but, in the process, missed a “teachable moment” to clarify the company’s role in censoring online conversation.

It’s also possible Facebook was inadvertently blocking any mention of TVshack, but it’s not clear why that glitch wasn’t uncovered until yesterday – or why they would be blocking links to a site that had been down for two years.

Facebook has censored content before. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick rounded up a handful of examples, including blocking links to noted filesharing site The Pirate Bay, even if the content was non-infringing and, more disturbingly, censoring any reference to, a company with which Facebook was in a legal dispute at the time.

At one point, Facebook was also blocking pages with the word “Palestine” in the title from being created.

The censorship issue raises questions about the role specific social networking policies play – or ought to play – in what sort of information users can share. It’s an interesting moment for Facebook, too, after the site was used in the past year by activists to organize demonstrations during the unrest and revolutionary movements termed the Arab Spring.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Images: Atlantic Releasing, Morguefile