On the ground | Information democracy | Freedom of expression online

SIN v Facebook: Tech giant sued over censorship in landmark case

By Panoptykon Foundation (guest author) · May 8, 2019

On 7 May 2019, Civil Society Drug Policy Initiative (SIN), a Polish non-profit organisation promoting evidence-based drug policy, filed a lawsuit with the support of the Polish EDRi member Panoptykon Foundation, against Facebook in a strategic litigation case aimed at fighting private censorship on the internet.

Online platforms act as “gatekeepers” for free speech, a tremendous power which they wield without adequate accountability or responsibility. Even though moderation may be necessary in certain situations such as the fight against illegal, harmful content, often perfectly legal and socially valuable materials often fall prey to it. Panoptykon hopes that the lawsuit against Facebook will help change this imbalance of powers.

For the past decade, SIN has been providing drug education, cautioning against harmful effects of psychoactive substances, and helping drug users. SIN works mainly in the interest of young people who tend not to listen to experts or teachers, but who are very active on social media. The group focuses on harm reduction which is a drug-prevention strategy recommended by many institutions, including the United Nations, and the European Union.

In 2018, without any warning or clear explanation, Facebook removed a fan page and a group run by SIN. The platform had characterised their activity as “in violation of Community Standards”. In January 2019, one of the SIN’s accounts on Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook, was also removed in similar circumstances. When Facebook banned SIN from its social networks, it essentially decided that information about damage reduction and drug education does not deserve the protection of the freedom of expression.

By doing so Facebook made it harder for us to help people who need it the most. It also undermined our reputation by suggesting our actions were illegal.

said SIN’s Jerzy Afanasjew.

He also stated that they had set up a new fan page and that they were trying to rebuild trust and reach. They claimed that the fact that they don’t know what exactly set off the alarm for Facebook content moderators and that therefore it is difficult for them to correct the situation.

Big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter present content selected by algorithms on the basis of users’ online activity. However, they also moderate the content published online, thus deciding what users will not get to see. Panoptykon fights for content removal to be based on clear and easily accessible rules and for users to have the right to effectively contest the decision. This means for example that the user has to be informed why their content was blocked, and to be able to present arguments in their defense. The appeal should also be considered by people who did not play a role in the initial decision. In addition, platforms’ final decisions should be subject to independent scrutiny by courts.

Panoptykon filed the case with the expectation that the court case will give online platforms an incentive to move away from their current opaque and arbitrary methods of blocking, and to introduce solutions which will better protect our freedom of expression. The case is expected to set standards that will influence policies of not only Facebook, but also other platforms.

Panoptykon Foundation

SIN v Facebook

(Contribution by EDRi member Panoptykon Foundation, Poland)