Facebook Under Fire for Allowing Holocaust Deniers

Social networking site pushed to ban Holocaust denial groups.

May 12, 2009, 12:03 PM

May 12, 2009— -- Abbas Hodroj says he has the right to express his opinions on Facebook.

So when the 25-year-old student from Portland, Ore. heard that the social networking site was under pressure to ban Holocaust denial groups, he decided to join one.

Now, he's one of 39 Facebook users listed as members of the group "Holocaust: A Series of Lies," a community for those who, like Hodroj, do not believe that the genocide of about 6 million Jews during World War II ever took place.

"I've read many articles and different sources that say that did not happen. These historians, they go back in history and document World War II and said it didn't happen," said Hodroj, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon and has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. "The people that they said they survived were in hiding. ...They could be all fabricating [it]."

He said it's not fair that Facebook is under attack for letting groups like his organize on its site.

"I think it's ridiculous because you can say whatever you want as long as you're not causing violence or hurting others," he said.

But many others do not agree with him. And as their voices have grown louder, Facebook has found itself embroiled in yet another controversy related to its internal policies.

After a storm of criticism in the blogosphere, media reports and an open letter published Sunday by Brian Cuban, a Texas attorney and brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Facebook said it disabled two other controversial groups, "Based on the facts? There was no Holocaust" and "Holocaust is a Holohoax."

But despite stating that the company finds "Holocaust denial repugnant and ignorant," it has decided to let three groups continue to exist.

"We have spent considerable time internally discussing the issues of Holocaust denial and have come to the conclusion that the mere statement of denying the holocaust is not a violation of our terms," Brian Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, told ABCNews.com in an e-mail.

Schnitt said, however, that in countries where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, such as Germany, France and Austria, Facebook has decided to ban all Holocaust denial groups.

"Many of us at Facebook have direct personal connection to the Holocaust, through parents who were forced to flee Europe or relatives who could not escape. We believe in Facebook's mission that giving people tools to make the world more open is a better way to combat ignorance or deception than censorship, though we recognize that others ? including those at the company, disagree," he continued.

Human and Civil Rights Groups Say Facebook's Position Not Enough

Schnitt said the company would continue to monitor the remaining groups and if hateful or threatening comments are consistently posted, it will shut them down as well.

But Cuban and leading human and civil rights groups say that isn't good enough.

"It doesn't make a difference," said Cuban, who first brought his concerns to Facebook via e-mail in November. "The position is completely unacceptable.

In his initial e-mail, Cuban, who is of Russian-Jewish descent, asked Facebook why these groups were allowed to exist when the company's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities says users will not post content that is "hateful" or "threatening." He also pointed out that in some European countries, speech denying the Holocaust is illegal.

He said he received a "canned corporate response" from Facebook saying only that they know it's a controversial content but they don't take down content simply for being controversial.

Cuban didn't revisit the issue until President Obama condemned Holocaust deniers at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in late April.

He wrote about Obama's remarks and his Facebook concerns, and then posted them on his blog.

"That's when all hell broke loose," he said, adding that it prompted scattered media reports, blog posts and Twitter commentary.

In his open letter to Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Cuban took the site to task for supporting groups that promote hatred and not being transparent about the process it uses to remove content.

"I want an affirmative statement from Facebook that these groups will not be tolerated. Whether it's a group of 1 or 1000, hate is hate and hate begets hate," said Cuban.

And Cuban and others point out that this is not a First Amendment matter but, rather, a corporate responsibility issue.

"Facebook is not a state actor. Its activities do not implicate the First Amendment," said Ryan Calo, a legal fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet & Society. "Facebook has a Terms of Service and that could prohibit all kinds of different activities. It doesn't obligate Facebook to take stuff down. It just says [they] could."

KKK Group, Breasfeeding Photos Taken Down

He said the company is free to devise its own policies for what kinds of content are allowed to remain on the site. But Calo added that based on what Facebook has taken down, it appears that the company is looking to the First Amendment to frame the issue.

"If you want to draw a dividing line, you can constitutionally make it illegal when people are inciting violence," he said, adding that although the line is fuzzy, images and speech that approach obscenity are also not protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier this month, Facebook shut down a group called the "Isle of Man KKK," which urged members to keep the Island "free from foreigners" and included a picture of a hooded Ku Klux Klan member.

In an interview with CNN, Schnitt said the company removed the group because it interpreted the page as threatening and inciting violence.

In January, the company provoked mothers across the country, when it took down photos of women breast-feeding, citing its policy against nudity. Schnitt said the vast majority of breast-feeding photos are still on the site.

As the site continues to grow by leaps and bounds -- it's about 200 million members strong and adds about 3.5 million new users each week -- human and civil rights groups hope Facebook will revisit the way it monitors user activity.

"Hate on the Internet is growing like wildfire," said Deborah Lautner, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League. In the past year, she said ADL has seen a 100 percent increase in the number of complaints from the community about hate speech online.

Her group has worked with YouTube (owned by Google) on the issue and hopes Facebook will also be responsive to their concerns.

"Once they provide a forum, they need to step up and provide mechanism, such as terms of service that are enforceable to take down hate," she said.

That Facebook has taken down two Holocaust denial groups is insufficient, she said.

"For us, Holocaust denial is fundamentally anti-Semitic and therefore it is hate and violates their terms of use," she said. "The fundamental core of Holocaust denial is that Jews are so powerful and have such control that they could make up this outrageous lie. At its core, not only is it offensive to the 6 million people who perished and those who survived, but at its core, it's an anti-Semitic theory of world control? And it does not deserve a forum on Facebook."

Human Rights Report: More Than 10,000 Examples of Hate Online

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center, an International Jewish human rights group, said his group commends Facebook for having policies that prohibit hate speech and violence on its site.

"Facebook has over 200 million users and I would say I think Facebook is making a good faith effort at trying to address these issues," he said, adding that he met with Facebook earlier this year to discuss the matter.

Still, he said that as it and other social networking sites grow, online hate speech continues to multiply as well.

On Wednesday, his group will unveil its annual report on online hate speech that shows that social networking is fueling the proliferation of hateful Web sites, videos, online groups and chat groups. He said they found more than 10,000 online examples of sites that promote racial violence, anti-Semitism, homophobia and terrorism.

Cooper said he was not surprised that Facebook shut down two Holocaust denial groups but hopes they continue to look into it.

"We're not the thought police," he said. But, "giving them a freebie in the commons that is Facebook, we believe crosses the line and we hope they'll continue their review."

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