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Leah Anthony Libresco Headshot

The Law of Facebook

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Apparently England should have tried death threats.

Prime Minister David Cameron is upset that Facebook refuses to take down a group that honors a murderer. The group, titled "R.I.P. Raoul Moat You Legend!," honors Raoul Moat, a criminal who shot several people, including a police officer, and then shot himself. The page has attracted over 35,000 fans. Despite Cameron's pleas, Facebook has declared it will not delete the group.

Radical Isamist groups were more successful when they tried to force Facebook to remove the event celebrating "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." That event, which had over 100,000 members and did not advocate violence, was removed after the Lahore High Court to ban Facebook from Pakistan. The court was spurred on by riots in Pakistan and other nations threatening Facebook with jihad. Once Facebook deleted the group, the ban was lifted.

The idea of a global jihadist's veto is profoundly dismaying. But these battles are only the tip of the iceberg in the fight over online speech. To understand the full scope of the problem, consider how very low the relative stakes of any battle over Facebook really are.

Joining offensive groups on Facebook is the act of a short-sighted amateur. The aficionados of Raoul Moat most closely resemble the tattooed gangsters profiled in a recent article from the Baltimore Sun. These gang leaders had acquired nicknames like Bloody Batman and Killer -- and had tattooed these names on their bodies for all to see. This proved to be a mistake when they faced trial for murder. In one trial, prosecuters persuaded a judge to bar a defendant from covering up the large tattoo on his neck that read 'murder,' forcing him to show it to the jury.

Facebook groups are the least threatening form of online speech, because they are self-censoring by their very nature. Every comment, no matter how offensive, is tied back to an identity. Even for users who have adopted nicknames or other noms de guerre online, it is not difficult to tie accounts back to a real world identity. Facebook is a social website, and, as such, people are identifiable by their links to their friends. I have no illusions that everything I do on Facebook won't be traceable back to me, for the rest of my life.

It's no wonder then that some internet denizens are fighting tooth and nail to prevent their online activities from being connected with their real world life. Blizzard Entertainment, the corporation behind the popular online role playing games World of Warcraft and Diablo, sparked open revolt among their users when it announced its plans to make all comments in the forum traceable back to the user by mandating the use of Real ID. Fan backlash was so pronounced that Blizzard was forced to scuttle its plans. Before the issue was resolved, Blizzard users demonstrated how much information could be deduced from a Real ID by finding and posting the private address and phone number of a Blizzard employee who had posted to the forum using his Real ID.

Reading over these stories of online speech, you may have noticed that there were few references to courts of law or the action of governments outside of England's ineffectual pleading and Pakistan's heavy handed censorship. Few governments have any kinds of laws clearly governing the limits of speech and of anonymity online. Standards are being set piecemeal by corporations, which are accountable to no one but their shareholders.

The traditional defense of censorship by corporation is that those who don't like the terms and conditions are free to take their business elsewhere. But, as the endless arguments about Facebook's privacy policies make clear, leaving a social network isn't like switching carriers for your cell phone. It's more like giving up the phone all together.

In the recent Second Circuit Court decision striking down the FCC's policy on fleeting expletives, the court claimed that the proliferation of online media had changed the standards for television. Now that TV no longer operated as a near monopoly on media, its language was less influential and didn't need to be so tightly policed.

Today, social networks and other online forums are poised to become the primary avenue of communication. The rules they set create new norms for what kind of speech is acceptable or even viewable, a power that goes far beyond the power of television to desensitize us to swearwords.

It's time for a new conversation about speech.