Facebook: Holocaust denial repulsive and ignorant

Following Brian Cuban's attack on Facebook's policies on Holocaust denial groups, company spokesman offers detailed response, describing the difficult decisions it has to make daily.

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

On Monday, I wrote about the very difficult issues surrounding the presence of Holocaust denial groups on Facebook.

Questions were raised by Brian Cuban, Mark Cuban's brother and attorney, as to whether the existence of such groups contravenes Facebook's terms of service.

I had a detailed e-mail Q&A Wednesday with Facebook's spokesman, Barry Schnitt.

I'm publishing it here in full, as Facebook is honest enough to admit that the company itself is still battling with some of these difficult questions.

I first asked him whether he felt Facebook had replied to Cuban's questions:

Schnitt: We do our best to answer user questions. We are still a start-up of 800 or so employees (far fewer answering user questions) serving 200 million users. As a result, we admit that sometimes our answers may not be as comprehensive as users like and we honestly don't have the resources to engage in detailed policy debates on a one-to-one basis. My point is that he said he never heard anything and that is absolutely not true.

Q: You mention that you have "recently begun to block content by IP in countries where that content is illegal." Why only recently?
Schnitt: Facebook is only five years old and blocking individual content in individual markets is not a trivial technical challenge. Facebook started in the US, so this capability wasn't necessary initially. As we have grown internationally, we've begun building the infrastructure to support compliance with international laws.

Do you think Facebook should be clearer about what content is or isn't acceptable? Do you think you should publicize in some manner which hate groups (and in which specific countries) have been shut down?
Schnitt: Our focus is on working to get the content down in the country where that content is illegal. I don't think it makes much sense to divert resources away from that effort at this point to tell someone in Canada that the page they are looking at is not available in Saudi Arabia, for example.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. CC Inocuo/Flickr

Your reply might suggest to some that there may be illegal groups out there that are still active.
Schnitt: We do our best to remove content that violates our policies or the law as quickly as we can. We have an extensive technical infrastructure for reporting and a dedicated team of professionals reviewing these reports. However, we can't guarantee that there isn't any content that violates our policies and I don't know of any site hosting user-generated that makes this guarantee.

You see, given the Newsweek publicity over your "Porn Cops" and the previous publicity over the breastfeeding issue, it might seem to some that Facebook's position is that hate is OK (as long as it's not been expressed by a known terrorist organization and doesn't expressly threaten violence or harm), while breast-feeding and other relatively innocent (to many) activities are not. It seems that someone complaining about breastfeeding will immediately ensure that the content is removed. While this is not so with hateful messaging.
Schnitt: To be clear, the breastfeeding issue has been widely misreported. Our policy is against nudity and we feel strongly that policy is important to keeping Facebook clean. The small number of photos we have removed are of naked women who happen to be breastfeeding. We take no action on the vast majority of breastfeeding photos that remain on the site. I encourage you to take a look at all the photos in this regard that are on the site, including the protest group: http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2517126532&ref=search.

The bottom line is that, of course, we abhor Nazi ideals and find Holocaust denial repulsive and ignorant. However, we believe people have a right to discuss these ideas and we want Facebook to be a place where ideas, even controversial ideas, can be discussed. Of course, we have some limits. I've discussed these previously and go into them again below.

One thing to consider that someone actually mentioned in the thread was the idea that there may be a benefit to having these ideas discussed in the open. Would we rather Holocaust denial was discussed behind closed doors or quietly propagated by anonymous sources? Or would we rather it was discussed in the open on Facebook where people's real names and their photo is associated with it for their friends, peers, and colleagues to see?

And how, precisely, do you draw the line between hate and threats? Do lawyers do that? Do the porn cops do that? It can't be easy.
Schnitt: You're right. The obvious cases are easy. Many cases aren't obvious, though and these cases can be very difficult. We have a cross-functional team from legal, user operations, policy, product, and communications that helps develop specific policies to anticipate or in response to difficult cases.

As I mention above, we have a policy against nudity but what constitutes nudity? We had meetings on that topic, consulted experts and looked at precedent from many sources including the FCC. In the end, we came up with silly-sounding but important rules like "the butt-crack rule," "the nipple rule," etc.

With hate and violence it can be even more difficult. We have some similar tests (e.g. Is the person in the photo just holding a gun or are they pointing it at someone or the camera?) but, in many cases, we have to rely on the user operations person reviewing the content to make a judgment call.

Thus, we have extensive programs to instill the proper skills, training, and expertise into these individuals to decide whether something crosses the line and also whether they might want to escalate to a lawyer or other person at Facebook to help them decide.

Having said all of that, we don't pretend to be omniscient and sometimes we make mistakes. However, we're committed to learning from them by developing new policies and reviewing the old ones.

One last question: I know there are some who would like to know whether you would permit the sale of Nazi memorabilia through a third-party Facebook app. I understand eBay decided to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia even in the US, even though it is not illegal here.
Schnitt: It is a good question. Honestly, we haven't had to deal with it yet. I suspect we'll be having another one of those cross-functional meetings to discuss it soon.