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Between Kafka and Orwell, the censorship of a small human rights NGO in the era of GAFA

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Alexis Krikorian


Legal harassment of Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu

Hyestart, like many American LGBT organizations, has faced a worrying phenomenon in recent months[1]: Facebook's censorship of advertisements for content deemed to be "political". We tried to dialogue with Facebook about the reasons behind these bans, but each time we were confronted by an "employee" of Facebook repeating the same answer ("You must authorize your page to run ads related to politics..."). Absurdly we tackled subjects that had nothing to do with the problem at stake and yet the Facebook "employee" was repeating the same formatted answer over and over again.

In our case, the censorship concerned at least two advertisements. One from August and the other one from September, each time for small amounts (2 or 3 francs). The August one concerned an article written by Hyestart and entitled: "LGBTI Rights: Respect for diversity and tolerance are traditional Armenian values. It's time to act[2]". The September one concerned a Hyestart post that congratulated Artzakank-Echo, the Armenian newspaper in Geneva, for being the only diaspora newspaper that had had the courage to write an article on the open letter from 9 organizations (including Hyestart) to the Armenian authorities for more LGBT rights in Armenia following a homophobic attack in the south of the country.

Hyestart, as an NGO defending freedom of expression and minority rights, is committed to many issues other than LGBT ones, starting with freedom of expression in Turkey. Censorship of two predominantly LGBT content led us to wonder whether the Facebook ban did not only discriminate against LGBT content, which would have marked a breach of equality between "communities" (LGBT vs. other minorities such as the Yazidis in Armenia or the Armenians in Turkey for example) or between human rights (sexual orientation vs. other rights like freedom of expression).

What exactly is the situation? Facebook "asks people who want to run ads related to politics and issues of national importance to confirm their identity", adding: "This is part of our efforts to make our ads more transparent", then "You only need to confirm your identity once to run ads with political content, and this for several Pages".

Here we see the direct consequences of the Russian purchase of political ads during the 2016 American elections!

We then learn that "the authorization process for advertisers who run advertisements with political content only concerns American advertisers who reside in the United States and plan to target the United States". In addition, "as of 7 May 2018, any advertising that includes political content and targets the United States may be added to our archive of political content ads, even if the advertiser who created the advertising does not reside in the United States and/or has not completed the authorization process".

We have therefore begun the identification process (rather the authorization process), not because we necessarily believe in this type of authorization, but for the purposes of this article.

When you start the authorization process, Facebook wants to know where you live (so they don't already have this information?). When we tell Facebook, as we do, that it is in Switzerland, we are informed that we "do not need to apply for permission to run ads related to politics and issues of national importance that target this place". Only the United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom would be concerned. However, after choosing "Switzerland" at the beginning of the identification process, it is not possible to click on the "start" button ("Démarrer" in French)! See the picture below. Nothing is happening. The only solution is to leave the page and you are informed that you will "lose all progress". Back to square one! When we contact Facebook about this and tell them that we do not need to request permission to run ads related to politics (according to them), Facebook simply sends back the same standard response that says, "You must authorize your page to run ads related to politics...". Kafkaesque!

malfunctioning of FB's authorization process to run "political ads"

Moreover, we tried to make another advertisement that did not contain the word "LGBT" but whose shared article in Le Monde newspaper contained the word "gay" and the picture of the rainbow flag. It was also rejected! A simple photo or the word "gay" is therefore likely to lead to this kind of censorship.

Could it be that the censorship is linked to the fact that the city of Glendale (United States), where many Armenians live, was part of our targeting? At first glance, it would seem so. Because once Glendale was removed from the targeting, the same ad was approved within minutes.

Nevertheless, it is not all that simple. The urgent appeal of publisher and human rights defender Ragip Zarakolu, against which Turkey issued an Interpol Red Notice, could be advertised. Yet the text concerned contained the words "Turkey", "Zarakolu", "Akhanli" and "freedom of expression" and "Glendale" was also part of the targeting.

This experience led us to further review our Facebook advertising history. We then realized that we had forgotten the first censorship we had been subjected to at the end of the first half of the year for "political" reasons. We didn't pay attention to it at the time. This was the sharing of a post by famous Turkish historian Taner Akcam (whose research on the Armenian genocide led him to live in exile in the United States) on the opening of an investigation by the Ankara Prosecutor into the Turkish-Armenian MP Garo Paylan for violation of Article 301 of the Penal Code (insult to "Turkishness"). This post contained the following words: "article 301", "Garo Paylan", "HDP", "Hrant Dink", "ECHR", "freedom of expression".

MP Garo Paylan investigated for insulting "Turkishness" (Article 301 TPC)

What topics, according to Facebook, will require the advertiser's authorization in ads targeting the United States? Facebook gives the following list:

▪ abortion

▪ budget

▪ civil rights

▪ crime

▪ economics

▪ education

▪ energy

▪ environment

▪ foreign policy

▪ government reform

▪ weapons

▪ health

▪ immigration

▪ infrastructure

▪ armed forces

▪ poverty

▪ social security

▪ taxes

▪ terrorism

▪ values

How long this list is! Facebook also reserves the right to change it over time. It would seem that apart from the funny cats that abound on this type of network, not much could escape this long yet vague list that can only remind us of certain vague legislations in some authoritarian countries which are used to stifle freedom of expression and lock up opponents. It is therefore well beyond the LGBT community alone that this censorship seems to be applying to, contrary to what we thought at first. The terms "LGBT" or "gay" are not even part of this very long list!

Our examples of censorship, and the speed with which it is sometimes applied (a few minutes), show that there is probably a censorship algorithm containing words such as "gay", "LGBT", "section 301", etc. Nevertheless, we are reduced to speculation because Facebook does not want to explain how the "filtering" it applies works. The Washington Post article referenced at the beginning of the article explains that Facebook refuses to say what proportion of "filtering" is due to the human factor and what proportion is due to algorithms. In October 2017, Facebook announced the upcoming hiring of a thousand additional moderators to analyze ads[3].

Moreover, one could wonder what motivates such "preferential treatment" on the part of Facebook? Could it be that small NGOs fighting for rights such as LGBT rights or freedom of expression have been identified as low-income earners and therefore easy targets? It is very difficult to find figures on Facebook's advertising revenues (several billion dollars per year) by sector. However, the biggest advertisers seem to be the big brands (Ford, Mc Donald's, HSBC, etc.). Some, such as Nestlé, are or have been members of Facebook's client council. This is a serious question that needs to be debated. I can't imagine Facebook censoring an ad from an important customer like Samsung, Disney, Starbucks, etc. It is easier to censor the small ad of a small local association. Yet some of these same corporations have been allowed to run dubious ads at times.

Facebook's censorship is worrying because it is based on vague, ill-defined criteria, which apply in a disparate and, above all, arbitrary manner. It is an opaque and dehumanizing process that does not allow dialogue with a human being. The authorization process is also Kafkaesque in nature because on the one hand you are told that you do not need it and, on the other hand, you are required to submit to it!

This new attack on freedom of expression, of which we are one of the many victims, is certainly part of the progressive reconsideration of Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996[4], which historically exempted "platforms" such as Facebook from any legal liability in relation to the content they "distribute".

Even if the liability issue of platforms like Facebook is far from a trivial one, it is incredible that small human rights NGOs, in the United States or elsewhere in the world, are paying the price for a money-hungry system that has been manipulated by harmful interests during major events such as the US presidential elections or the Brexit vote.

The freedom of expression of Hyestart, which would like to be known in some circles in the United States, is de facto violated by the American giant (in a situation of monopoly), which offers no way out. More generally, one could wonder about the commodification of information in the era of GAFA, particularly about the use of American advertising technologies by the Russians, but this is another debate that is not the subject of this article.

Will the questioning of freedom of expression in the United States, and more broadly in the West and the rest of the world, be one of the collateral effects of market law (and its state of the art technology) and Russian interference in these two political earthquakes? For a small NGO like Hyestart, which contributes to this commodification, even modestly, is it really worth it?

[4] "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider".

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