If I may, I'd like to discuss an essay that you posted on Facebook a month ago. The one about Facebook's "global community." I found myself thinking about it after a state court in Germany reached an initial verdict Tuesday last week that was very much in your favor. In particular, I was wondering if your lawyers in the case had even read your essay. But then I thought, certainly not. Otherwise they would have acted quite differently!
The plaintiff, Anas Modamani, is one of those users that you are otherwise so proud of: a young Syrian refugee who took a selfie with the German chancellor and then fought to ensure that it wouldn't be abused. An engaged user, in other words.
His image was used in two photomontages. One of them shows the selfie superimposed with the wanted poster of a suspect in the killing of a homeless man. The other sought to link him with the December terrorist attack in Berlin. The two Photoshopped images make Modamani look like a murderer and a terrorist. You deleted the first one and blocked the second one for users in Germany. Now, though, you have convinced the judges that you should not be required to search for and delete copies of the two montages, hundreds of which continue to circulate on Facebook. The court concluded that Facebook is "neither the perpetrator of nor participant in the undisputed defamation at issue here." You ostensibly don't have the technical means to find the images. And you are purportedly not responsible for the text, images and videos that can be found on your site. From my perspective, that is a rather convenient position to be in. Particularly when one reads your warm words about how "we" should be building the world that "we" all want. A world in which the 1.9 billion Facebook users join together to take on the largest problems facing humanity and show respect for one another.
"There have been terribly tragic events -- like suicides, some live streamed -- that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner," you wrote. "Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach. We are researching systems that can look at photos and videos to flag content our team should review." Elsewhere in the essay, you admit that "fake news" is something that worries you. Why, then, didn't you help Anas Modamani in his effort to stop the dissemination of manipulated copies of his Merkel selfie?
The focus of the trial appeared to have been on some technical or legal question. In reality, though, something much more fundamental was at issue: Is Facebook simply a neutral "host provider," as the court wrote in its verdict? Or is it a community with values, as I like to believe as a user?
In your essay, you write that membership in local groups has been in decline since the 1970s and that Facebook is a kind of antidote to that development. You discuss Christina, who suffers from a serious illness, and Matt, the single father, both of whom used Facebook to find others in their situation. You speak of the danger presented by nationalists and rave about programs that helped register 2 million Americans ahead of last year's presidential elections. To quote you once again: "We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today."
That doesn't sound like a mere host provider. It sounds like someone trying to make the world a better place to me!
I think it is right for you to avoid pulling back to a position of technical neutrality. I find it good for you to think politically. But being political also means being measured against your ideals. I find myself wondering why you exhibit so much confidence when talking about climate change, terrorism or illness but so little responsibility when it comes to fake news, hate speech and cyberbullying. Why do victims always have to go to the courts before anything happens? Why does Facebook act like an authoritarian government when grassroots democracy rears its head? That, my dear Mark, is something I don't like at all.
Translated by Charles Hawley