Facebook’s exercise of public power

facebook-770688_1280In this post I want to argue that Facebook’s banning of pages, profiles and removing posts is an exercise of public power and as such should be subjected to material and procedural standards of public law and human rights.

Ok, I’m not gonna actually argue that much. But I want to defend a weaker claim: it is not obvious that Facebook’s discretion should not be limited by fundamental rights and freedoms, simply because it is a private company. Same applies to other platforms of equal social importance, like Google, YouTube and Twitter. And many other ‘private’ actors.

Context: one international, and one Polish. You probably all remember Facebook’s removal of the photo of the ‘napalm girl’ and the outcry that followed. Critics where accusing Facebook of the ‘abuse of power’ and ‘censorship’, leading the company to change its initial decision. Arguments of critics involved the fact that the photo is ‘iconic’, and that Facebook’s role in news dissemination is enormous (44% of adults in US get their news from there).

In Poland, the case is of a different political colour. In the last days, a group combating hate speech and xenophobia held a mass-scale action of reporting extreme-right wing Facebook pages, what led to the deletion of dozens of them, including pages of a member of parliament, several nation-wide organisations, some with hundreds of thousands of supporters and followers. This also caused an outcry and even made it to the national tv news in the station currently controlled by the government. Arguments invoked by the critics are essentially the same: freedom of speech, censorship, abuse of power etc. The difference is: this time Facebook’s decision got many supporters, who among other arguments claim that Facebook is a private company, acting for profit, and not only is but also should be allowed to do such things.

Now, there is a clear difference between the two cases. In the case of the ‘napalm girl’, Facebook did a ‘bad’ thing. In case of right-wing pages, it does a ‘good’ thing. There are two reasons for that classification to be widely-shared. Firstly, many of the right-wing pages contained content that might be against the law on hate speech and promoting violence. I will deal with this soon. Secondly, there is an emotional reason. Let me dwell on it first.

It just so happens that Facebook currently has a clear liberal and progressive agenda. And that this agenda suits so many commentators, probably including you and me. However, it is not clear that it will always be so. Today Facebook enjoys quite some freedom. Today liberal and progressive sells. But make two thought experiments. Imagine that Facebook would have a right wing agenda, and block extreme-left pages. Or even just liberal pages, or whatever pages that suit your worldview. Would you still be so sure that what they do is perfectly legit? Secondly, imagine that political winds change. Imagine that Trump wins elections. Imagine that suddenly there is a pressure on Facebook to change the course (‘or else we tax you high’, or ‘we grant people property rights in their personal data’, or anything else that would hurt Fb). And that society at large approves. Will we still defend Facebook’s freedom and full discretion? Or will we then say: hey, but common, everyone uses your services, you shape how people think, you have public responsibility and duty?

Emotions aside: In classical legal thinking, which still prevails in many continental legal traditions, including the Polish one, the world was neat and ordered. There were public bodies, allowed to do only what the law says they can do and holding the monopoly on the use of force; and private bodies, allowed to do everything that the law does not forbid them from doing and not allowed to use physical force against each other. 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a rise of constitutionalism, which led to the human-rights-limitation and control of the exercise of public power by public bodies.

Within that picture, Facebook is indeed a private company. It can do everything that the law does not forbid it from doing. It is not under direct obligation to facilitate freedom of speech, a right to associate, fair trial etc. However, notice three things:

  1. Factually, Facebook’s power is enormous. With billions of people using it, billions of people trusting it with providing news, billions of people using it for organisation and communication, it can easily affect the abovementioned rights and freedoms. It might be a private company, but it holds a ‘public’ position in many senses. Why?
  2. Even assuming that Facebook just deletes what it believes is against the law, it:
    1. interpretes the law by itself, without relying on any court;
    2. executes the law by itself, because it has the factual monopoly on the ‘digital force’. In the tangible world, an owner of a debate club might want to kick out a speaker from his property, but would need police to actually take him or her out. In the tangible world, one might find some banners outrageous, but destroying them would still infringe someone else’s property rights. In the digital world, where there are no ‘bodies’, and people do not hold any property in their digital content, this is legally fine, and factually easy, since Facebook unilaterally controls the platform.
  3. However, Facebook does more than just deleting illegal content. It sets its own rules and standards, often stricter than the law. Moreover, it not only deletes stuff, but through the underlying algorithms it chooses what will be displayed to whom and how often. In this sense, if we look at it as a public space, which it in many senses is (remember social media’s role in the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian Majdan?), it is the sole legislator, the court, and the executor of the ‘law’. I does not hold a public power de lege, but it holds a de facto power perfectly imitating the one we have limited when the state is concerned.

Given all this, I think we need a debate on limiting the discretion of socially important internet platforms when it comes to policing the content displayed/allowed there. Obviously, dozens of questions arise: which ones, who would limit them, is market not enough, how would that impact innovation etc. etc? There are other private parties who exercise other ‘public’ powers elsewhere (think of FIFA, multinational corporations etc.). Should we regulate business at large, or sectors, or what? There is much to be thought through. There is already a lot written on this. Much less read on this. Questions are on the table, and I don’t have tweet-long answers.

But I simply cannot accept the claim that it is perfectly fine that Facebook interprets and executes the law, or actually does whatever it wants, because it is a private company. The power it holds is public in nature, just not yet labelled so by our analog laws. And if that does not convince you, remember: it might soon change that ‘our’ agenda sells. Just like with contracts, we need to make them when everything is fine, but will need them when something goes wrong.

 

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