It’s time Congress give social media users the same rights as suspects in criminal trials

Facebook-CensoredSocial media sites have become, for good or ill, major tools for people of like minds to connect and share thoughts, ideas and even information.  Unfortunately, users of sites like Facebook and Twitter have found themselves punished or banned, in many cases, for no real reason whatsoever.

Suspects in criminal trials have the right to due process; the right to face their accusers and the right to make their case before a jury of their peers.  They are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Users on some social media sites have no such rights, and can find themselves banned or punished for things they did not do.

This happened to Florida-based blogger Diane Sori, who was banned from Facebook for 30 days over a link she had nothing to do with.  Worse yet, she didn’t even have access to the Internet when the link was posted.  But that didn’t matter.  She got banned anyway.  Facebook compounded the problem by refusing to respond to her pleas and appeals — a very common complaint from those in her situation.

Recently, while gathering information about the recent incident where links to The Blaze and other sites were classified as spam, I found myself blocked from Facebook for allegedly posting something that violated Facebook’s terms of service.

Normally, when that happens, you get a dialog box telling you that something you posted violated the rules, but I never got that.  I learned about it from a Facebook spokesman who said he would find out what it was I had supposedly posted.  I’m still waiting patiently.

This happens every day to hundreds, if not thousands of users across Facebook, and users of Twitter have found themselves placed in a “gulag” simply because someone didn’t like what they posted and complained.

While Thursday’s incident with The Blaze was the unfortunate result of a misconfigured spam classifier, it added fuel to the growing backlash from conservatives who say Facebook is engaging in a form of viewpoint discrimination.

Facebook spokesman Fred Wolens categorically denied that the site is targeting conservatives, but he’s going to have a very hard time convincing people of that.

Sure, Facebook and Twitter are businesses that can set whatever terms they wish, within the confines of the law, but considering their size and the sheer volume of complaints, perhaps it’s time for some oversight.

Being a small-government conservative with some libertarian leanings, I’m normally loathe to suggest this, but maybe Congress needs to consider legislation dealing with the way large social media sites operate, since these bans can sometimes impact a person’s online reputation and livelihood.

We naturally don’t want legislation regarding speech, but perhaps legislation is needed to deal with disputes that arise from incidents where users can potentially be banned.

After all, we don’t automatically electrocute someone because they’ve been accused of murder.  So why should social media users be automatically punished because someone with an axe to grind clicked “Report” or an automated agent flags something without understanding the context.

Users should be given some benefit of the doubt and presented with an opportunity to either explain the post or rectify it before being slammed.  In Sori’s case, Facebook would have learned that she had no access to the Internet and her ban could have been prevented, since most reasonable people would agree that lack of access would make posting virtually impossible.

These sites should also be required to have something like a “helpdesk” or “user ombudsman” who becomes the liaison between the company and the user.  Facebook told me it would take about 200,000 people to man a helpdesk-type system for all their users.  But Microsoft — a company whose products are used by far more people — has a system that gives personal assistance to users.  Why not Facebook?

The legislation should also include third-party remedies for those cases that cannot be resolved between the site and the user.

Some may say this is unnecessary, since Facebook is in the private sector, but we regulate companies and private utilities all the time.  Why should Facebook or Twitter be any different?

It would be nice if these problems could be corrected without legislation, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that dialog with these sites is going nowhere.  Even as I write this, I am receiving complaints that people cannot share links on Facebook for no apparent reason.

With over a billion users worldwide, Facebook provides a communications platform to a huge chunk of the population.  It’s time Congress stepped up and offered a “commonsense” solution giving users the same rights as those facing criminal charges.


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Joe Newby

A 10-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Joe ran for a city council position in Riverside, Calif., in 1991 and managed successful campaigns for the Idaho state legislature. Co-author of "Banned: How Facebook enables militant Islamic jihad," Joe wrote for Examiner.com from 2010 until it closed in 2016 and his work has been published at Newsbusters, Spokane Faith and Values and other sites. He now runs the Conservative Firing Line.

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