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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Facebook confirms removal of two Holocaust denial groups. Is it enough?

Facebook has confirmed my earlier suspicion that it has disabled two of the five Holocaust denial groups whose presence has caused much controversy over the past week, following attorney Brian Cuban's consistent pressure for the groups' removal.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said in an e-mail to Technically Incorrect: "Two of the groups have been disabled, but the other three remain."

He continued: "We are monitoring these groups and if the discussion among members degrades to the point of promoting hate or violence, despite whatever disclaimer the group description provides, we will take them down. This has happened in the past, especially when controversial groups are publicized."

This would suggest that Facebook is looking to the members of these groups to create the conditions for their own banishment.

It is a curious decision, as some would argue that the very existence of these groups fails to walk the line between hate and threat, if one can be defined at all.

In response to Facebook's comments, Brian Cuban said: "They have not addressed the issue. I find Barry Schnitt disturbingly dismissive and flippant about these issues."

How, indeed, should one interpret this posting, for example, from just before Mother's Day on a Facebook wall of one of the remaining Holocaust denial groups?: "Jews use the holocaust to achieve their agenda of killing innocents. Israel is the holocause (sic) of today."

Doesn't that feel like promoting hate?

One can only surmise that in the cross-disciplinary groups at Facebook that make decisions on policies such as these, lawyers have rather more influence than anyone else.

The Holocaust Memorial in Miami, Florida.

(Credit: CC Praziquantel/Flickr)

In a comment to a post from Michael Arrington at TechCrunch, Schnitt also said: "We are serious about our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and where there is content that violates these terms, we will remove it. We have spent considerable time internally discussing the issues of holocaust denial and have come to the conclusion that the mere statement of denying the holocaust is not a violation of our terms."

After the posting of Brian Cuban's open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Cuban's blog, the Cuban Revolution, Schnitt also addressed for the first time that for many at Facebook this is also a personal issue:

"Many of us at Facebook have direct personal connection to the Holocaust, through parents who were forced to flee Europe or relatives who could not escape. We believe in Facebook's mission that giving people tools to make the world more open is a better way to combat ignorance or deception than censorship, though we recognize that others--including those at the company, disagree."

He added: "We may be fools for doing the former but not 'cowards.'"

Naturally, it would be interesting to know who at Facebook opposes the company's stance and whether Facebook would be happy for those employees, whoever they might be, to air their opinions publicly. Perhaps even on the walls of the three remaining groups.

However, it seems clear that this will not be the last we hear of this issue. In a further e-mail to Technically Incorrect, Schnitt explained who had been consulted by Facebook before the company determined its stance: "The experts we've talked to have generally been Internet law experts, free speech people, and experts on radicalism and technology. They haven't been specifically related to the Holocaust but that is a good idea."

It will be interesting to see what those Holocaust experts might say.