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Facebook Struggling With Free Speech, Cyberbullies

Facebook Free Speech
Figuring out where to draw the line between free speech and harassment is hard enough for the government; it's even more difficult for Facebook. In recent months, the social network has found itself on the fulcrum of many high-profile free speech debates, ranging in topics from controversial cartoons to cyberbullying to Wikileaks. Through it all, Facebook's 'hate and harassment' team has tried to rule according to a consistent policy, but it hasn't been able to avoid harsh criticism.

Cyberbullying is a particularly thorny issue. When a group of users began insulting and threatening an 11-year-old girl who had appeared in a music video, the girl's mother demanded that the page be taken down. Facebook's terms of service, however, explicitly allow for users to criticize public figures. Because the girl was in a music video, the company said, she had already become a public figure. (Comments threatening violence against the girl were eventually taken down.)

Many parents, meanwhile, have criticized the site for not doing enough to protect its younger users against cyberbullies, and for not removing posted threats quickly enough. But Facebook says it's doing the best it can to keep up with the approximately 2 million complaints of abuse it receives each day. "Our intent is to triage to make sure we get to the high-priority, high-risk and high-visibility items most quickly," said chief security officer Joe Sullivan. "In the same way that efforts to combat bullying offline are not 100-percent successful, the efforts to stop people from saying something offensive about another person online are not complete either."

Then, of course, there's the issue of political speech. In the past, Facebook has toed the line by drawing a distinction between open discussion and overt threats against a particular group or culture. Most Holocaust denial groups, for example, are permitted on the site, but any groups that are tied to a larger campaign against Jews have been taken down. In the case of last spring's 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day' controversy, Facebook determined that the group didn't overtly attack Muslims. Pakistan and Bangladesh vehemently disagreed, however. (We did too.)

As the social networking site continues to grow, so too will its role as the world's unofficial arbiter of free speech. "Facebook has more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president," George Washington law professor Jeffrey Rosen told the New York Times. "It is important that Facebook is exercising its power carefully and protecting more speech rather than less."

Tags: controversy, CyberBullying, facebook, FreeSpeech, harassment, hate, politics, SocialNetworking, top, Wikileaks