On 21 February 2022, leading London law firm Bindmans LLP, instructed by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), sent a formal complaint to Facebook on behalf of digital rights group Sada Social and a number of Palestinian journalists, commentators and news agencies, regarding the arbitrary censorship of content and suspension of accounts experienced on Facebook’s platform. Facebook Inc., which was rebranded last October as Meta Inc., owns both social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.
The complaint, which was also sent to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, requests an urgent review of, and explanation for, the decisions made by Facebook to suspend accounts and posts which are affiliated to Palestinian news agencies, commentators and journalists.
This complaint follows on from a previous communication submitted by Bindmans LLP last year, in May 2021, which was made on behalf of five journalists and news agencies in Palestine, who have experienced Facebook’s interference with their accounts and/or posts, accusing Facebook of breaching their fundamental right to freedom of expression, and Facebook’s own Corporate Human Rights Policy. The main questions posed by Bindmans LLP included whether the censorship decisions were carried out by an algorithm or by a person exercising their discretion, and details regarding Facebook’s policy in justifying their censorship decisions, in addition to steps taken by the company to resolve unfair censorship.
In June 2021, Facebook’s response to the original complaint provided via their lawyers, White & Case, was that ‘Facebook Inc. had investigated the accounts referenced in the May 2021 letter and, after further review, has restored content and/or accounts where applicable.’ Notably, no substantial answers were provided to any of the main questions cited in the original communication.
Despite the commitments made by Facebook in their letter sent in June 2021, the censorship remained. Additionally, the documentation carried out by digital rights group Sada Social reveals that Facebook’s censorship of Palestinian-related content is representative of a much wider problem that is far-reaching and ostensibly systematic in nature.
Digital rights group Sada Social has been monitoring the suspension of Palestinian content and accounts on Facebook and other social media platforms since 2017. In 2021, Sada Social documented hundreds of instances of inappropriate censorship of social media content in support of the rights of Palestinians on social media platforms. This censorship was exacerbated significantly during the last Israeli offensive on Gaza in May 2021.
This heightened censorship is being practiced unjustifiably by Facebook and persists amidst the Israeli Knesset’s preliminary approval on 8 December 2021, of a law that would allow Israeli authorities to remove content not just from Facebook, but also from all other social media outlets, extending to removing content from any website at all. This far-reaching bill includes vague considerations to possible harm to an ‘individual’s safety’, ‘public safety’, and ‘national security’ – terms that are frequently utilised to serve political interests. An additional dangerous implication of the bill includes the ability to ask internet providers to block access in Israel to content that websites don’t agree to remove.
According to the Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition (PDRC) and the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council (PHROC), the proposed law will reportedly grant Israeli courts the power to demand the ‘removal of user-generated content on social media content platforms that can be perceived as inflammatory or as harming the security of the state or the security of the public.’ Both organisations have warned against the passing of the law, as it would attract serious repercussions on Palestinian digital rights, posing a direct and grave threat on the rights to freedom and opinion of expression of Palestinians in the digital space.
The complaint reinstates the request that Meta/Facebook discloses and reviews its decision-making process, and explains why the accounts were closed, suspended or posts taken down, and whether in doing so an algorithm or human discretion was used.