Tsinghua University / AP

Facebook clarifies, confuses with new content rules

New community standards ban expressions of support for groups like ISIL and outline what types of nudity are OK

Facebook on Monday issued an update to its often vague and inconsistent community standards, offering explanations for why certain content — from alleged "terrorist" material to images depicting nudity — may be censored from the world's largest social network.

Many applauded, even “liked,” the social media giant’s attempt to clarify its rules. But critics said many key questions remain unanswered, especially regarding Facebook's definition of what constitutes a “dangerous organization.”

The community standards, which also ban hate speech and threats of violence, now state that any “expressions of support” for groups involved in “terrorist activity” — or even for those groups’ leaders — are prohibited. Facebook does not name the groups, though it and Twitter have been under pressure from EU leaders and others to censor the propaganda and recruiting tools of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

There is also new guidance on when nudity is permissible — for instance, in photographs of art or women breastfeeding — and when it is not — namely, in any sexualized context.

The standards reflect how Facebook and other social media platforms are seeking to balance their roles as popular channels of communication and their recognition that failing to accommodate users' sensitivities — whether families who do not want their children exposed to sexual imagery, or conservative governments who threaten to block Facebook for hosting blasphemous content — could hinder these networks’ reach.

“As difficult questions arise about the limits of what people can share, we have a single guiding principle: We want to give the most voice to the most people,” said founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post to his Facebook page announcing the new community standards. “In an ideal world, we would all feel empowered to express everything we want, freely and safely. In reality, there are many obstacles in the way.”

Internet freedom advocates like Jillian York, the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised Monday’s step, saying that Facebook at least seems to be making an effort to explain its policies.

But she said the section on “dangerous organizations” remained a problem. York, who has analyzed the types of content Facebook typically blocks, said the company's definition of “terrorism” appeared to follow U.S. designations that not all of Facebook's 1.4 billion users recognize.

While much of the world agrees that Al-Qaeda constitutes a terror group and would therefore be censored under Facebook’s standards, it isn't clear whether the same ban should apply to a group like the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States has deemed a “foreign terrorist organization” even though it has played a crucial role in the fight against ISIL. Groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, which also have legitimate administrative and humanitarian wings, might fall in the same gray area.

“Facebook is a global company with a global user base,” York said. “If they’re censoring political groups because the U.S. considers them terror groups, that requires more clarity.”

Franz-Stefan Gady, an analyst at the East-West Institute, added that even in the case of ISIL, which nearly every government in the world considers a terrorist group, wiping them off the Internet is not necessarily an effective means of silencing their ideology. “Should Facebook in the future enforce even stricter standards, extremists will just migrate to other platforms,” Gady said in an email.

The new standards are more forthcoming on other fronts — for instance, nudity. According to Facebook, "We ... restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures."

The company acknowledged that its user-reported violation system, whereby content will only be removed if another user flags it for review, is not an exact science. For the sake of both expediency and consistency, the new standards page says, "our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes."

York had concerns about such restrictions, which may reflect Facebook’s pursuit of a “family-friendly” image as well as its desire to skirt legal liability for child pornography and revenge porn. “A lot of companies are banning nudity to point where the ban has become the new fig leaf, a new standard on the corporate Internet,” she said.

Facebook also maintains a policy of geo-restricting access to content that does not violate the company's content rules if a local government has correctly pointed out it violates local law. On Monday, the company released its data on government requests to take down content for the second half of 2014, during which it reported an 11 percent increase in block requests.

In his post, Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s policy of capitulating to even oppressive governments — one of the foremost complaints that Internet freedom activists lodge against the social network.

Facebook’s concerns about being blocked are, of course, valid. The site is currently unavailable in North Korea, China and Iran, and has been temporarily blocked in countries including Turkey and Tunisia during periods of unrest. 

“If we ignored a lawful government order and then we were blocked, all of these people's voices would be muted, and whatever content the government believed was illegal would be blocked anyway,” Zuckerberg said. “This is a matter of giving the most voice to the most people.”

In bending to local governments, however, Facebook has opened itself up to accusations of complying with their crackdowns on free expression. Mohamed Najem, an adjunct fellow at the New America Foundation and an expert on social media policy in the Arab region, noted that governments will often levy accusations of blasphemy, which is illegal in many Middle Eastern countries, in order to silence troublemakers online.

But Najem argued that as Facebook’s user base grows across the world, people may have little patience for such limitations. He noted that when the Tunisian regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali blocked Facebook in 2008 before the Arab Spring uprising that would see him toppled, even his supporters protested.

“Facebook has more leverage and power than they think they do,” Najem said, "so they should actually push more in terms of policy and freedom of expression.”

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