Facebook Islam Row Highlights Free Speech Issues

    September 11, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

Historically, in the brick-and-mortar world, we’ve had courts to settle disputes. Online, there are terms of service agreements and invisible judges determining, usually at the behest of the loudest and largest mob, who is guilty of crossing the line between conscious protest and hate speech.

Facebook Islam Row Highlights Free Speech Issues
Facebook Islam Row Highlights Free Speech Issues

And at times, that line can be as thin as the line between art and pornography.

Yet, here we are creating user-generated societies within corporately-provided bubbles without any clear delineation of what is tolerable. What is tolerable is determined by mobs and, less often, lawyers who will pull this out into the real world if necessary.

I’m certainly not one to judge the content of the Facebook group mentioned in this New York Times article with 750 members with the stated goal denouncing not only Islam and the Quran, but also the existence of God. There may have been other potentially objectionable statements made.

But another group, which grew 58,000 members strong by the weekend, threatened to cancel their Facebook memberships if the anti-Islamic group wasn’t removed.

What to do, what to do? A representative of the targeted group said Facebook deleted the account – briefly. They most likely realized the freedom of speech quagmire they were about to enter and changed their mind. Facebook didn’t have a comment, so we may never know.

But it highlights a growing issue as the Internet creates a more connected world and as people with any number of opinions cross paths, and they (gasp!) have to learn to deal with each other.

Some of those opinions will be hateful. The terms of use for using websites warn against hate speech, but who is the line judge eyeballing between anger and hate?

Is it the Middle East Media Research Institute, who’ve been keeping a close eye on all the mean things said about Islam and Muhammad on YouTube? Are YouTubers allowed to call Islam a "sucky, pathetic religion"? Is it hate speech to give "Seven reasons why Islam is crazy"?

Those sound more like strong opinions than hate speech. But I’m not a judge. And I don’t necessarily want to be. I’m just not sure, in this case, if you substituted "Christianity," "Mormonism," or "Wicca," you could label it anything other than religious commentary. But because it involves Islam – or it involved Judaism – it would be slapped around into the hate speech zone, at least for a little while.

The point is one I’ve tried to make before – when YouTube yanked videos at the request of foreign interests, when AT&T muted Eddie Vedder, when Google let China have its way them – that there is no freedom of speech on the Internet so long as the platforms for speech are provided by private companies dancing to the demands of the largest market.

This is not – repeat is not, before commentators below and on blogs start calling me a liberal communist pig – a call for central government control of the Internet – just, perhaps, some guarantee out there, via Net Neutrality or through the various Bills of Rights that have been proposed, that people will retain their right to speech even in digital forums, terms of service and angry mobs be damned.

We should be allowed to say what we want to say.