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    Facebook: Offensive Content Versus Free Speech

    The social networking site Facebook has over 200 million active members and is available in 40 languages. Seventy percent of Facebook users live outside the United States, less than a third are college students, and the fastest growing demographic is individuals thirty-five years and older. With this kind of diversity in membership, there are often opposing viewpoints regarding acceptable content. Facebook has rules prohibiting hateful, threatening, or pornographic content or content that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence. Some content, however, resides in the gray area between natural and obscene, between inflammatory and hateful. When an issue does reside in this gray area, Facebook has to make a judgment call based on its ethics and value system, which may be at odds with its users' values.

    In January 2009, Facebook removed pictures of nursing women from personal pages, citing that these pictures violated the policy against nudity. In 2008, Facebook received criticism for not removing content, specifically, the pages of anti-gypsy groups. Members of the UK parliament condemned Facebook for hosting pages that include images of the Ku Klux Klan. And in 2009, Facebook was pressured to remove groups that denied the Holocaust.
    No doubt Facebook is in a tough position. They would like to maintain freedom of speech on the Web, but critics argue that Facebook has the responsibility to decide what is appropriate for users within its terms of service and that hate groups should not be tolerated. Issues like these are likely to continue as Facebook adds users with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. What steps has Facebook taken to deal with these ethical dilemmas?
    Currently, Facebook does not actively search for content that doesn't adhere to their policies. Instead, they rely on users to flag this content. Questionable items go before a team that either approves or deletes an item based on their interpretation of the company's guidelines. Facebook also seeks outside counsel, meeting regularly with human rights organizations and even the US Department of State for advice on these issues. In the end, the decision to allow or remove is a judgment call based on the company's values which are clearly not always going to be in line with every user. As a result, Facebook has received some criticism for their decisions. However, it is exceedingly difficult to develop rules that can ethically deal with all issues that arise; subjective judgment will always be necessary.

    Discussion Questions:
    1. In its current approach, Facebook depends on user complaints before it investigates possibly questionable content. How might this be complicated in a multi-cultural setting?

    2. Suppose that Facebook, citing freedom of speech, decides that it will allow individual and group users to post anything, with no restrictions. How will such an ethical stance affect the company's success?

    3. Write up a content statement for Facebook - what would you allow, what would you exclude?

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    Solution Preview

    1. In its current approach, Facebook depends on user complaints before it investigates possibly questionable content. How might this be complicated in a multi-cultural setting?
    Globalization and technology revolutions have shrunken the world by removing the country boundaries. Facebook is a social networking site that connects people from all over the world, belonging to different cultures, background, attitude, values. These people from various backgrounds generally have a different opinion on the same thing. It can cause damage to the company reputation of the Facebook; people have ...

    Solution Summary

    The following posting discusses a Facebook case study about offensive content and free speech.