Whose Facebook is it anyway?

BY INJI PENNU| IN Digital Media | 21/10/2015
Some of Facebook’s policies fuel hatred against women and minorities. Time for some answers from Mark Zuckerberg,
says activist INJI PENNU, one of the main drivers of the ‘#forabetterFB’ campaign


The digital world should have given women and minorities more freedom and an equal footing. But without any proper international laws or any cybercrime laws, the Internet is a veritable Wild Wild West. The arbitrary use of ‘laws’ and standards that Facebook has created have denied space in the digital world to groups who are routinely denied space in the physical world. 

But a reaction has happened. In what is called the ‘Nameless Coalition’, over 75 organisations and groups across the globe, including Access, Global Voices Advocacy, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Digital Rights Foundation, ACLU, The Internet Democracy Project, ForabetterFB Campaign, Take Back The Tech, One World, Human Rights Watch, CDT, and Point of View, have come together to protest at Facebook’s policies.

What is the issue?

Social networking sites like Facebook are adapting archaic laws from the traditional world and effectively relegating women and sections of indigenous and ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ people, and Internet users into oblivion.

Facebook tries to ‘play government’, gives mobs the right to control opinion and causes complete havoc in an already faulty system. The resulting violence leads to deaths. With no understanding of the sensitive cultures it is getting into, Facebook behaves like a theocratic fascist government asking for identifications and then later publishing the identities without any concern for the vulnerabilities of these profiles.

Preetha GP, a Malayalam writer and single mother from Kerala, used her Facebook profile just like many women to etch out a space in the digital world. Her followers exceed 25,000, giving her the status of a celebrity profile. Like many women in developing countries, Facebook is a political tool for her, not a friend-finder tool. Preetha GP suffered a brutal online attack on  July28 from an online mob that morphed her images and abused and threatened her.

To her surprise, instead of any kind of action against the mob after repeated requests to Facebook, her profile was suspended without any reason. On enquiry, she found that the suspension was possible because the mob that abused her also reported her profile as a “Fake Profile”. Facebook did not ask the mob for verification of its claim. Instead, it asked an authentic user with a “real name” for verification, despite the fact that Preetha GP had submitted her identification months earlier.

The power of the mob

Clearly, Facebook is not really worried about “authentic names”, as it has been saying, but about collecting identities. But even then, Facebook suspended her profile as and when a mob commanded. Although Facebook later reinstated Preetha GP’s profile after she had submitted proof of her identity, Facebook did not even give her the privilege of suppressing her caste name, something which she vehemently opposed displaying.  

But this was not all. More and more women who supported Preetha GP also met with the same fate. Their profiles were also suspended. Desperate to protect their digital existence, the women decided to get together and roll out a campaign (#forabetterFB) to provide a collective voice against the social networking company’s policies that fuel online harassment, violence and hatred against women and minorities.

Soon, there were multiple meetings and communication with Facebook executives to try and explain how their policies are actually propagating more violence. In response, Facebook executives gave constant reassurances of “software roll outs” and excuses about ‘policy changes vs system change’, leading to such frustration that women activists began to network through the digital world, trying to listen to other groups and their concerns.

The language issue

Other issues emerged. For instance, Facebook appears not to understand language issues at all, even though they boast of language expertise. There was nothing in place. It was a faulty system trying to gather user data to survive.

Sexual Assault pages appeared in Malayalam. When these were reported to Facebook as hate speech or vulgarity, Facebook couldn't understand the language. Though at FB they always claims that they do understand Indian languages. At first it was thought, only Malayalam had issues. Speaking with Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Urdu, Facebook users, it looks like non-English languages all have the same issue. Then again, we assumed, Facebook is not understanding the nuances of the colloquial sexual terms, but further regressive testing proved that Facebook doesn't understand even basic dictionary sexual or misogynistic words in non-English languages. While this was communicated in meetings, the Facebook executives had a lackadaisical attitude towards this.

In less than two months, a coalition was cobbled together and 75 organizations joined hands across the globe, in multiple languages, to endorse the campaign called ‘Nameless Coalition’ and sent an open letter to Facebook. There’s a joint petition hosted on the EFF site too.

ForabetterFB was formed in August. The Nameless Coalition was formed in September and the letter was sent on October 5th.

The letter states that Facebook’s name policies are ‘culturally biased and technically flawed’. Facebook simply doesn’t recognise those who:

  1. Don’t have ‘regular’ names, such as transgender and gender variant people whose legal names don’t accord with their gender identity;

  2. Those who use a pseudonym or name modification in order to protect themselves from physical violence, legal threats from repressive governments, or harassment on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, or political activities;

  3. Those who have been silenced by attackers abusing Facebook’s “Fake Name” reporting option;

  4. Those whose legal names don’t fit the arbitrary standards of “real names” developed by Facebook, such as Native Americans, other ethnic minorities, and members of the clergy.

Forget about internet.org or Free Basics, individuals without an ID that Facebook accepts are left without recourse. Moreover, IDs must be submitted to Facebook within ten days of notice, disadvantaging users who do not have daily access to the Internet, many of whom live in places with low levels of Internet penetration.

The open letter suggests simple policy and process changes so that Facebook can do right by its current and future users without discrimination, particularly those in countries with poor connectivity.

So Mr Zuckerberg, when you hold your Town Q&A session at IIT Delhi On October 28, do please respond. 


Inji Pennu is a Global Voices Reporter. She blogs in English and Malayalam since 2006. She lives short periods of time in India and long periods in the US as part of work. She freelances for local dailies.



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