We Still Don’t Know Why Facebook Unblocks Censored Websites

Suzanne had a choice: she could keep blogging despite Facebook censoring her personal website or simply post her thoughts on Facebook itself.

Suzanne Zaccour started her personal blog, De colère et d’espoir (in English, ‘Anger and Hope’), in May 2014. Suzanne has described the French blog as feminist and radical, and one that denounces innocuous, sexist behaviour. She’s currently doing her masters in law at the University of Toronto.

(Full disclosure: Suzanne and I ran in the same circles at McGill’s law faculty, where she studied and where I study now. I don’t read her blog, nor is this article an endorsement of it.)

Facebook has blocked De colère de d’espoir since early November 2016, deeming it “unsafe.” Funnily enough, the Facebook page for Suzanne’s personal blog — which has over 2700 likes and followers — has never been censored by Facebook.

Facebook never informed Suzanne that its “security systems” had “detected’ her blog to be unsafe. She says she found out by accident.

Someone who knows Suzanne simply tried to link to her blog on Facebook in November 2016. The person saw a warning like this one, which pulled up for me this past week:

You’ll receive the same warning if you attempt to share Suzanne’s blog in any form on Facebook.

Suzanne says she realized soon after that all previous shares of her blog had disappeared from Facebook — including, she says, the entire posts that linked to her blog.

She’s repeatedly tried to go through Facebook’s process for claims that the company has blocked a site by mistake, submitting around 20 complaints about her blog’s censorship through a form like this one:

Suzanne also asked her network on Facebook to submit complaints that the censorship had happened in error.

But in return, Suzanne has received only automatic, generic replies with no effect. Indeed, the only response she’s received from Facebook — after being arbitrarily censored for eight months — has consistently been as follows:

A quick search online reveals that Suzanne isn’t alone in such censorship. There’s an entire Facebook group dedicated to helping people get their websites unblocked.

But how does Facebook censor websites? Jillian C. York, Facebook censorship expert and EFF’s Director for International Freedom of Expression, told me that blocked websites generally happen for one of two reasons. The first is automatic spam detection, into which some legitimate websites might fall. The second involves someone reporting the website, and it essentially gets added to a blacklist.

Numerous Facebook forums reveal that others have encountered this problem too. On several forum discussions like this one, Facebook staff have pointed to the Facebook Debugger, which helps to “provide information on what needs to be fixed to unblock your link.”

Yet “debugging” Suzanne’s website only confirms the suspicion that Suzanne’s blog has, indeed, been blocked not necessarily because of a technical error related to spam, but because the content doesn’t meet Facebook’s Community Standards.

Though Suzanne described her feminism to me as “uncompromising,” Facebook has never explained how her blog’s content breaches its policies. The company has never afforded Suzanne any such procedural fairness.

The fallout has been significant. Suzanne says she has essentially stopped blogging because of being censored. She attempted to circumvent the censorship by creating a new blog, but says it was a huge effort to transfer all her posts and she began losing some original viewers.

Instead, Suzanne has started posting content that is similar to her old blog simply as Facebook statuses— raising the fascinating question of whether or not censorship by Facebook can correlate to them potentially monopolizing our speech.

Did a Facebook content moderator think her blog constituted “Attacks on Public Figures” or a “Dangerous Organisation”? We’ll likely never know.

The Guardian’s landmark leaks of Facebook’s internal moderation policies shed some light on why its employees may censor material. But without knowing why Facebook unblocks censored content, some users are still left in the dark.

Image by Carlos Botelho and Mr. Z-Man, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.