Regulators: Hands off the social Web

Two recent events have sparked debates about whether the social Web should be censored: the first is the recent civil unrest in London and the second is a recent report in the Sunday Times about a racist calling himself “Eugene Terrorblanche” publishing a deeply disturbing photo on Facebook (it turns out this is an old story but relevant nonetheless).

Riots in Greece (Dec 2008) Tear Gas

When faced with these sorts of social network abuses, its sometimes tempting to ask whether these social services are somehow inherently bad for allowing themselves to be abused like this. The short answer is “no” and that these services typically take action against the offending material or account where the use falls foul of their terms of service or is otherwise illegal. Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities contain the following use restrictions:


We do our best to keep Facebook safe, but we cannot guarantee it. We need your help to do that, which includes the following commitments:

  1. You will not send or otherwise post unauthorized commercial communications (such as spam) on Facebook.
  2. You will not collect users' content or information, or otherwise access Facebook, using automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission.
  3. You will not engage in unlawful multi-level marketing, such as a pyramid scheme, on Facebook.
  4. You will not upload viruses or other malicious code.
  5. You will not solicit login information or access an account belonging to someone else.
  6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  7. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.
  8. You will not develop or operate a third-party application containing alcohol-related or other mature content (including advertisements) without appropriate age-based restrictions.
  9. You will follow our Promotions Guidelines and all applicable laws if you publicize or offer any contest, giveaway, or sweepstakes (“promotion”) on Facebook.
  10. You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.
  11. You will not do anything that could disable, overburden, or impair the proper working of Facebook, such as a denial of service attack.
  12. You will not facilitate or encourage any violations of this Statement.

Twitter’s Rules contain the following restrictions:

Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter

In order to provide the Twitter service and the ability to communicate and stay connected with others, there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter. These limitations comply with legal requirements and make Twitter a better experience for all. We may need to change these rules from time to time and reserve the right to do so. Please check back here to see the latest.

  • Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others
  • Trademark: We reserve the right to reclaim user names on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those user names. Accounts using business names and/or logos to mislead others will be permanently suspended.
  • Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.
  • Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.
  • Copyright: We will respond to clear and complete notices of alleged copyright infringement. Our copyright procedures are set forth in the Terms of Service.
  • Unlawful Use: You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.
  • Misuse of Twitter Badges: You may not use a Verified Account badge or Promoted Products badge unless it is provided by Twitter. Accounts using these badges as part of profile pictures, background images, or in a way that falsely implies affiliation with Twitter will be suspended.

Google+’s content policy contains similar restrictions. The point is that these social services contain mechanisms in their terms of service which prohibit users from using their services of these sorts of uses and to remove the content in question or delete the user’s profile where these rules are infringed.

Neutral tools and misinformed assumptions

Notwithstanding these infrastructural barriers to improper uses of these services, governments and regulatory bodies have raised the possibility of regulation of the social Web as a response to what they may regard as offensive or inappropriate use of these social services. In the United Kingdom, the British government mooted the possibility of restricting access to social services like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry’s messaging services which were apparently used by rioters to co-ordinate their activities. The challenge with Blackberry’s services, in particular, is they are purportedly encrypted and that has frustrated numerous governments seeking to spy on their Blackberry-using citizens. The desire to censor or restrict these services because they may have been used by criminal elements in the United Kingdom is short-sighted and doesn’t take into account the beneficial uses of these services.

The Guardian published results of a study of Twitter usage during the London riots recently. Not surprisingly, the study’s findings revealed that the perception of these social services primarily as tools for criminals was overstated.

Analysis of more than 2.5m Twitter messages relating to the riots in England has cast doubt on the rationale behind government proposals to ban people from social networks or shut down their websites in times of civil unrest.

A preliminary study of a database of riot-related tweets, compiled by the Guardian, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.

Timing trends drawn from the data question the assumption that Twitter played a widespread role in inciting the violence in advance, an accusation also levelled at the rival social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.

The study revealed that Twitter, for example, was used to organize responses to the rioting and to co-ordinate a clean-up. In other words, the victims of the violence used Twitter to organize themselves and a response to the same criminal activity which similarly relied on these services to propagate. Restricting access to these services may stifle criminal activity but it may also stifle beneficial uses of the services.

Locally, the Sunday Times article sparked various debates about the disturbing photo of the apparent right winger. One of the debates focused on how the photo and the story first broke in 2008 and was hardly the news the Sunday Times portrayed it as. The Sunday Times came under criticism for making much of an old story and yet these critics have glossed over two serious issues: the photo was still available on Facebook 3 years after it was first noticed by the media and the photo still depicts a very disturbing image of a white man enthusiastically posing over the apparent body of a black boy with his rifle as if the white man hunted him. Irrespective of whether the photo is real or a fabrication, the message the photograph should most certainly concern us for various reasons. It touches on old racial tensions which are very much alive and well 17 years after South Africa adopted a broad democracy based on fundamental rights such as equality and dignity.

The photograph also suggests that these same racial tensions are not just the domain of an older generation but have been handed down to a younger generation on both sides of the growing racial divide. We see it in this photograph and we see it in Julius Malema’s rhetoric. These are some of the real issues we should be concerned about, not which publication published the story first or whether the photograph may have been fabricated (if the photograph is an accurate portrayal of what it appears to portray, it is an even more graphic illustration of these issues).

Regulation and censorship

Riot squad

Another debate which this story’s renewed publicity has sparked is a similar one to the debate underway in the United Kingdom: should the social Web be regulated, censored, to address improper uses of these services? The chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Lawrence Mushwana, recently released a statement suggesting that the social Web should be regulated. According to the Citizen, reporting on this –

Mushwana said even though there was no doubt that social networking sites played an important role in promoting the right of freedom of expression it was clear that practical ways should be found to ensure they were used appropriately.

One of the issues raised was individuals’ ability to hide behind pseudonyms and relatively untraceable profiles and post offensive material or even conduct criminal activity using these social services (social services like Google+ and Facebook take a firm stand against pseudonyms and this has proven to be controversial). The SAHRC has apparently had to close numerous files because people suspected of human rights abuses have been unable to locate and hold accountable. One stark example of this is the young man depicted in the photograph the Sunday Times published. While that is certainly a concern, it is also important to point out that the call for assistance in identifying this individual was made, in part, using the social Web. The link to the article was published on the Sunday Times website and was disseminated using Twitter and Facebook links alongside the article almost 800 times on Twitter and over 3000 times as I write this. These numbers don’t take into account how often the story’s link was shared on Twitter and Facebook directly or even on other social services ranging from email to the relative newcomer, Google Plus.

Mushwana’s chilling call for regulation ignores the fact that the law in South Africa already prohibits incitements to violence and hate speech, to name two features of these two stories. The right to freedom of expression specifically excludes its application to incitement to violence and hate speech. Criminal activities co-ordinated through social services, the phone or word of mouth are equally illegal and punishable. I also believe that just as with content piracy, criminals intent on abusing social services to further their criminal activities will find other ways to do this if current channels are simply cut off. What happens then is that the very people who would otherwise be empowered by these social services to resist our society’s harmful elements will be deprived of an accessible, powerful and effective set of tools. What governments and regulators should rather do is find better ways to make use of these services to harness crowd wisdom to monitor and combat the social Web’s abusers. One example of where British police have started doing this is publishing surveillance photos of the looters to Flickr and asking citizens to identify them so the police could arrest the suspected looters.

Legally speaking, there may be compelling grounds to argue that depriving citizens of the use of these social services may unreasonably infringe citizens’ rights to dignity, freedom of association, not to mention the right to freedom of expression. We have a fairly robust recognition for the value of these rights in our constitutional jurisprudence and limiting the scope of our rights is not a small matter. The Constitutional Court in the matter of S v Mamabolo (E TV and Others Intervening) stated the following:

Freedom of expression, especially when gauged in conjunction with its accompanying fundamental freedoms, is of the utmost importance in the kind of open and democratic society the Constitution has set as our aspirational norm. Having regard to our recent past of thought control, censorship and enforced conformity to governmental theories, freedom of expression — the free and open exchange of ideas — is no less important than it is in the United States of America. It could actually be contended with much force that the public interest in the open market-place of ideas is all the more important to us in this country because our democracy is not yet firmly established and must feel its way. Therefore we should be particularly astute to outlaw any form of thought control, however respectably dressed.

In policy terms, the question how far this sort of regulation goes also arises. Censoring criminals using social services is a relatively easy choice but what happens when the people using these services are legitimately protesting an unpopular government or policies designed to erode human rights. We have seen several examples of the former in the Middle East and north Africa this year and examples of the latter here in South Africa when the government introduced legislation which would substantially erode freedom of the press, for instance.

The law is developed enough to deal with these sorts of issues even as the tools used to commit these misdeeds become more widespread and versatile. The social Web introduced us to a new paradigm but that paradigm doesn’t just apply to marketing initiatives, the social Web amplifies social conventions and empowers previously disadvantaged people who lacked the means to express their voices. The social Web is not inherently good or bad and regulatory frameworks exist alongside contractual frameworks established by these social services to recognise and combat abuses like hate speech and incitements to violence. What governments and regulators are forced to contend with is a fundamental shift of the power dynamics between them and citizens but those shifts can have profoundly beneficial implications for the same citizens those regulators seek to protect. Where citizens find themselves subject to tyranny, they have resorted to these tools to combat that tyranny. As the old adage goes:

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Photo credits:

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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