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Nithin Coca headshot

Facebook Chooses Governments and Profits Over Users' Freedom and Information

By Nithin Coca

As more and more information is being shared through social media, the opaque content policies of social-media companies create concerns that these new gatekeepers of the Web may not have the public's best interest in mind. None more so than the giant, Facebook, and its moves toward working with government to circumvent users free speech.

We live in an era of information, with user-generated content often being the catalyst for massive media stories.

In fact, one can connect the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to the spread, via social media, of videos, photos and other content about police brutality. Whether it was the “I can't breathe” quote uttered by Eric Garner before he suffocated at the hands of an NYPD police officer, or the heart-wrenching video of a fatally wounded Philando Castile, whose fiancé says was shot while reaching for his drivers license, these viral media have shown all Americans what far too many African Americans have to deal with daily.

The Castile video was shared via Facebook's new video system, Facebook Live. And it may not be possible again, because police are increasingly working directly with Facebook to prevent users from sharing content before it goes viral, Quartz reported on Sunday. Case in point: what happened earlier this month in Baltimore.

"As events unraveled and before police shot and killed [23-year-old Korryn Gaines], they asked Facebook to suspend Gaines’ accounts on both platforms," wrote Quartz reporter Hanna Kozlowskaqz. "They said users were egging her on not to give in during their negotiations. Facebook complied with the request and anyone watching Gaines’ feed found themselves cut off."

Facebook's response is what anyone receives when they attempt to reach the company: Gaines' videos violated their content policy. This content policy is opaque, unevenly applied, and subject to no oversight except that of Facebook and its secret algorithms. What if Facebook had used this policy to block Castile's fiancé from sharing her video on Facebook Live?

Or, and this is a real possibility, what other content has Facebook already blocked without us even knowing about it?

What's happening here in America is not nearly as scary as what's taking place abroad. In countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Turkey and Egypt, people are being regularly arrested for what they post on Facebook or Twitter. In Thailand, it can be something as simple as indirectly insulting the Royal Family's dog. In Turkey, it can be doing real journalism, as the increasingly authoritarian government there clamps down on the free press.

It might get worse. Facebook is actively courting the world's largest Internet market, China, where arrests, censorship and government monitoring of the Web are everyday occurrences. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even met with the country's propaganda chief.

China is ground-zero for censorship and the blocking of the spread of information online. Case in point: The popular Chinese alternative to Facebook, WeChat, is suspected of giving China direct access to its content, which is regularly censored.

Access to this huge market – and billions in advertising potential – are far more important than protecting users' privacy and rights. Considering how readily Facebook responds and works with police in the U.S., it is not that far-fetched to imagine the company giving Chinese authorities access to its networks.

What's the alternative? We need a social network that respects user privacy, allows for the sharing of important videos like those that have shown the world the reality of police brutality in America, and does not accede to government demands -- whether it is a police department in America or the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

Facebook is trending in the wrong direction, and with control of the company firmly in the hands of Zuckerberg for years to come, I highly doubt Facebook will ever be that network.

Image credit: Kvarki via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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