Facebook’s civil rights failure

Facebook hired two civil rights experts – Laura Murphy and Megan Cacace – to write a report on the company’s practices. It went as well as you’d expect.

Judd Legum covered the report for Popular Information:

The report zeroes in on what’s troubling about Facebook’s policies, as articulated by Clegg and Zuckerberg. They do not represent a commitment to free expression. The policies privilege expression of the powerful over all other people. This is not just unfair — it makes it even more challenging to protect civil rights on the platform.

Elevating free expression is a good thing, but it should apply to everyone. When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices. The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors. Mark Zuckerberg’s speech and Nick Clegg’s announcements deeply impacted our civil rights work and added new challenges to reining in voter suppression.

The report recommends Facebook reverse these policies, but it’s a recommendation that Facebook will almost certainly ignore. And with two sets of policies around speech — one for the powerful and one for everyone else — can Facebook ever effectively protect civil rights?

Free speech without safeguards isn’t free speech: it’s the status quo, with all the impediments to free speech (for some) and failures that entails.

Prioritising free expression above all else feels like a simple way to ensure that everyone can speak freely. But it doesn’t work. Not in a world where things like discrimination, bigotry and marginalisation exist. They all, explicitly and implicitly, create an environment where only certain people can speak and even fewer people will be heard.