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Facebook is stepping in where governments won’t on free expression

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We’ve known for quite some time that Facebook has a huge say over how online speech and expression are governed. Users have demanded accountability, and as a result the company created the Facebook Oversight Board to review and provide transparency about its content moderation decisions.

More recently, it also tried to suppress Australian news in response to proposed legislation that would charge internet companies for distributing news content, prompting outrage a call to #deletefacebook. Facebook ultimately backed down.

A collection of newspaper front pages about Facebook's Australia showdown.
Front pages of Australian newspapers are displayed in Sydney on Feb. 19, 2021, after Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organizations for content.
(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The creation of the Oversight Board is a clear indication that Facebook sees itself as a global governor of freedom of expression online. This goes to the heart of how governance is changing as a result of technological progress. Although Facebook’s Oversight Board appears to be a step towards more accountable decision-making, it also highlights the failure of governments to address freedom of expression in online content.

Media platforms constantly make judgments about appropriate speech, and Facebook’s global reach of 2.8 billion monthly users gives the board tremendous global influence.

Protecting human rights

The Oversight Board is to use “its independent judgment to support people’s right to free expression and ensure those rights are being adequately respected.” The explicit reference to human rights in its charter acknowledges that companies have a role in protecting and enforcing human rights.

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This is consistent with efforts by the United Nations and other advocacy efforts to create standards on how businesses should be held accountable for human rights abuses. In light of Facebook’s entanglement in misinformation, scandals and election falsehoods, as well as genocide and incitement of violence, it seems particularly pertinent for the company.

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Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide


It’s not a stretch to say that Facebook seeks to become a governor of human rights. The decisions made by Facebook through its content moderators and Oversight Board have significant implications for the exercise of worldwide freedom of expression and speech. Their decisions articulate principles of what is acceptable expression that far exceed the reach of any single state in the world.

Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in October 2020.
(Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

To date, we have assigned such decision-making powers to states, many of which are accountable to their citizens. Facebook, on the other hand, is unaccountable to citizens in nations around the world, and a single individual (Mark Zuckerberg) holds majority decision-making power at the company.

Transparency emphasized

Facebook took the step to create the Oversight Board after Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, suggested the idea in 2018. In the board’s first set of decisions, it emphasized the need for transparency about Facebook removals.

Noah Feldman speaks at a hearing.
Noah Feldman testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on the constitutional grounds for the first impeachment of Donald Trump in December 2019.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Oversight Board will soon be deciding on the decision to remove former U.S. president Donald Trump from Facebook, a pivotal case. Its first set of decisions weren’t nearly as high profile, but made apparent the internal procedures Facebook uses to make its content decisions.

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To date, there have been seven decisions. One removal that the Oversight Board overturned concerned the exposure of female nipples in a breast cancer awareness campaign on Instagram. This case highlighted the importance of human moderation, as the post had been removed by an algorithm (Facebook restored it when the Oversight Board selected the case to review).

In other cases, human moderators have had their decisions overturned. The Oversight Board also upheld Facebook’s decision to remove a dehumanizing ethnic slur against Azerbaijanis in the context of an active conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region.

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However, the Oversight Board deals with only a small fraction of possible cases. Whether the board was created to enhance transparency and human rights or to heavily influence meaningful government intervention and regulation, it’s clear that private organizations are currently the only consistent governors of data and social media.

The TikTok logo.
TikTok could also play a role in global freedom of expression.
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Few entities can influence freedom of expression at the global level as pervasively as Facebook. Twitter is another candidate, although with 330 million monthly users, its influence pales in comparison. TikTok might be a bigger contender, projected to reach 1.2 billion monthly users this year, and WeChat has similar numbers. Taken together, it’s clear that while Facebook is the largest social media platform, these companies play an enormous role in online freedom of expression and speech.

Governments must step up

But Facebook and other social media companies do not have to engage in a transparent, publicly accountable process to make their decisions. However, Facebook claims that in its decision-making, it upholds the human right of freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression does not mean the same thing to everyone.

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Freedom of speech often involves sifting out bad ideas from good. It is about protecting the right to say what you think, even when it’s a minority opinion. Maintaining the balance of harm versus freedom has always been tricky.

Facebook’s dominance in social media, however, is notable not because it’s a private company. Mass communication has been privatized, at least in the U.S., for a long time. Rather, Facebook’s insertion into the regulation of freedom of expression and its claim to support human rights is notable because these have traditionally been the territory of governments. While far from perfect, democracies provide citizens and other groups influence over the enforcement of human rights.

Facebook and other social media companies, however, have no such accountability to the public. Ensuring human rights needs to go beyond volunteerism by private companies. Perhaps with the Australia versus Facebook showdown, governments finally have an impetus to pay attention to the effects of technology companies on fundamental human rights.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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