Facebook’s definition of terrorism silences legitimate opposition, says UN expert

28th Sep 2018

Elham Asaad Buaras

A United Nations (UN) human rights expert has urged Facebook to narrow its “sweeping” definition of terrorism to stop governments from arbitrarily blocking legitimate opposition groups and dissenting voices.

UN Special Rapporteur, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, wrote to the big tech firm’s Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, on September 3, alleging Facebook wrongly treats all non-state groups that use violence in pursuit of any goals as terrorist entities.


“The use of such a sweeping definition is particularly worrying in light of a number of governments seeking to stigmatise diverse forms of dissent and oppositionwhether peaceful or violent as terrorism,” wrote Ní Aoláin.

Facebook’s policy did not take account of rebel armed groups that comply with the international humanitarian law, the letter said. She did not give examples, but governments facing armed opposition, such as in Syria, frequently label all their opponents as terrorists, even if other countries do not agree.

Ní Aoláin commended “the important role Facebook plays in offsetting terrorist activity online”, but said it must not unduly interfere in the human rights of its users and should ensure there is a way to challenge wrong decisions.

Overly broad and imprecise definitions of terrorism may lead to “discriminatory implementation, over-censoring and arbitrary denial of access to and use of Facebook’s services”, wrote Ní Aoláin, a UN Human Rights Council independent expert.

“Moreover, it is unclear how Facebook determines when a person belongs to a particular group and whether the respective group or person is given the opportunity to meaningfully challenge such determination.”

Facebook and other social media firms are increasingly involved in regulation that used to be done by states, and are under pressure from governments to police content disseminated by users, Ní Aoláin said.

Facebook’s definition of terrorism is built on three core principles: non-state actors who use violence with an intent to influence people that are not the immediate subjects of the violence.

In a statement to The Muslim News a spokesman for Facebook said, “By transparently sharing our definition of terrorism, our goal is to create opportunities for increased dialogue with important stakeholders, as was the case here. We want people to better understand our thinking and the frameworks that we use to make decisions about content and actors on our platform. We welcome this dialogue and hope to continue our conversations with the Special Rapporteur and others who are thinking deeply and working tirelessly on these issues.”

On March 24, Facebook shut down the page of Gaza-based news source the Safa Palestinian Press Agency and also removed their Instagram account. The social media corporation provided no explanation for this, other than stating that the outlet which had 1.3 million followers violated community standards.

Palestinians say the recent deletions are part of a new policy by the company targeting the content at the behest of the Israeli Government, which they allege has unfairly swept up Palestinian journalists and bloggers.

The former UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said Facebook had allowed its platform to be used to incite violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, where UN experts say a military crackdown had “genocidal intent”.

Citing the suspension of Facebook accounts of Rohingya human right activist as examples of the censorship of legitimate opposition groups The Muslim News had probed a government official on the UK’s stance.

Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, told The Muslim News that a balance between “security needs and ensuring people are not radicalised” and “legitimate use of social media to highlight violations and viewpoints” was essential.

Ahmad had spoken to The Muslim News ahead of Prime Minister, Theresa May’s address to the UNs General Assembly on September 20, 2017, where she demanded that tech firms needed to develop the capacity to take down terrorist-related material in two hours.

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