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A look into Facebook's judicial system

December 7, 2009 |  1:56 pm

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg really likes to compare his social network to an actual country. So, why not govern like the one it's based in?

Facebook has more active users than the U.S. population. (Last week, Zuckerberg announced the site had more than 350 million users.) But the site's rules are significantly stricter than free-speech laws in the United States.

A look around Facebook's new campus in Palo Alto. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times

Zuckerberg announced last week that the company would soon roll out its new set of simplified privacy features that allows users to post certain information to everyone, similar to Twitter's broadcast model.

Soon, we'll be able to potentially reach a massively larger audience than our respective groups of friends. But what isn't OK to say in the land of Facebook?

Despite Facebook's sincere attempt to sensibly present its terms of use agreement, much is left up to interpretation.

Point No. 7 in the 12 "safety" stipulations every Facebook user agreed to at sign-up reads, "You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

What's nudity? The policy enforcers at Facebook, a team of more than 100 spread out in offices around the world, including Northern California, London and Dublin, struggled with that question earlier this year. A legion of angry mothers revolted in response to the company removing photos of women breastfeeding.

The nudity policy, although not explicitly outlined, is pretty simple: no exposed nipples or nether regions. In a few cases, snap judgment during the so-called breastfeeding purge caused some fairly innocent pictures to get zapped.

But Barry Schnitt, Facebook's director of policy communications, asserts that the company's breastfeeding policy was largely misunderstood. The majority of the photos removed were of completely nude women (posing in mirrors or bathtubs) who happened to involve a baby eating lunch, Schnitt said.

Another misnomer is that the company was employing people to blindly click through pictures in search of breasts to flag for removal.

"We only act on things that are reported to us," Schnitt said during an interview at Facebook's campus in Palo Alto. The vast majority of those reports come in the form of buttons throughout the site that users can click to highlight offensive content. So, if your au naturel pose gets zapped, blame a friend.

Facebook actually takes action on less than half of all reports. "They're actually stricter than we are," Schnitt said about Facebook's sort of neighborhood watchdogs.

Occasionally, reports come from federal investigators. Yes, some people have tried to use Facebook to sell drugs.

Facebook takes active stances against certain menaces. Today, the company announced the formation of an advisory board to protect against online predators.

Drug dealers and sex offenders are one thing. But understanding the nuances of Facebook's limited free-speech law can be baffling at times.

"I hate the Raiders: OK," Schnitt said. (He's a 49ers fan.) "I hate Mark: not OK." But if two friends are joking around, it's OK -- because it probably won't get reported.

"But at the same time, I hate Jews: also not OK," Schnitt said. "Hatred of individuals or hatred of protected groups is not something we want on Facebook."

The policy team's "protected groups" list is a mystery. It's sometimes compiled ad hoc, and for loudmouths and comedians, it can be a fine line to walk.

A member of the Facebook group How To Get Banned From Facebook said his account was temporarily shut down after joining a group that called Zuckerberg, the chief executive, a naughty word. Countless others get smacked with suspensions with no indication as to why.

"While we are sort of led by 1st Amendment ideals, and we want to promote open conversations even if it's controversial, we draw the line at hate or threats of violence or bullying against an individual," Schnitt said.

Facebook is a place where a significant sect of the global population spends minutes or hours a day. There's no public trials, juries of peers or leniency for playground bullies. Governing in the land of Facebook is on the shoulders of Chief Zuckerberg, Secretary Schnitt and a team of one-click enforcers.

Of course, "there's a difference between kicking somebody off Facebook and throwing them in jail," Schnitt said.

Try telling that to this Facebook addict from the New York Observer. Yikes, talk about a guilty pleasure.

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

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