The idea of Gawker, a website that shares the ethical standards of the seamier denizens of “Rick’s” in “Casablanca,” doing a legitimate ethics expose gives me a brain cramp, but the gossip site has given a platform to a Facebook whistleblower, sort of.
I say “sort of,” because knowing Gawker, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was paid to rat out his former employers-once-removed (he was hired by Facebook’s outsourcing firm that handled his training—oDesk), making him ethically less of a whistleblower than a candidate for Gawker’s editorial board. The argument, I suppose, would be that a dollar an hour, which is what Gawker’s source says was his princely reward for doing Facebook’s dirty work, shouldn’t buy much loyalty and confidentiality, if any. Ethically, that’s false: you are obligated to abide by the terms of bad deals if you voluntarily agree to them. Practically speaking, it is true. A worker a company exploits is likely to harbor more animus than good will, and it isn’t the happy workers who blow whistles. Fine: neither Gawker’s source nor Gawker are ethically admirable. On to Facebook.
The whistleblower is Amine Derkaoui, a 21-year-old Moroccan who was recruited by an outsourcing firm to screen illicit Facebook content. This is what he was paid a dollar an hour for, which, when one considers the news reports flying around recently about how rich Mark Zuckerberg is, and after the company filed its record $100 billion IPO, seems unequivocally exploitive. His real exposé, however, involves what he was paid to do, which was to be Facebook’s censor. Derkaoui supplied Gawker with a bootleg copy of part of Facebook’s abuse standards, which lays out what the company believes is appropriate and what it believes should be banned from the web. Thus it is Facebook’s morality, revealing the ethical standards that the company embraces.
Make no mistake: Facebook has a right to have and enforce such rules. It’s their house, and Facebook users aren’t being forced to live there. Still, since the company is stating its ethical priorities, we have the right to judge their ethical wisdom. The verdict is pretty easy: it’s arbitrary and incoherent. Any of these are banned, for example; They will be flagged by Facebook software, and be deleted:
- Blatant (obvious) depiction of “camel toes”…
- Mothers breastfeeding
- Sexual activity “even if naked parts are hidden from view.”
- Sex toys or other objects, but only in the context of sexual activity.
- Depictions of sexual fetishes in any form.
- Photoshopped images of people
- Images of drunk and unconscious people , or sleeping people with things drawn on their face.
- Violent speech, such as, “I love hearing skulls crack.” (What about, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)
On the other end of the spectrum, Facebook has no problem at all with “images showing internal organs,” including “deep flesh wounds” and “excessive blood.” So that elevator scene from “The Shining” is just fine….no drunk people, though. “Crushed heads, limbs, etc. . . . as long as no insides are showing” are permitted (just don’t say you like looking at them, I guess.) Animated feces, like “Mr. Hanky”, are swell, but real feces will be censored. (I can’t tell about animated real feces, but I really hate that, myself.) Male nipples are hunky-dory, but “female nipple bulges and naked butt cracks” are taboo. Hate speech—which we all know is a perfectly clear term— is explicitly acceptable to Facebook as long as it’s delivered in “a humorous tone,” whatever that is. Drug use is not acceptable, except for pot, which Facebook has decided is benign, so “any amount” of it can be shown, unless the purpose is drug trafficking.
Violent images but not violent speech or sexual images; sarcastic “hate speech” but not direct hate speech; no sex or drunkenness but plenty of pot: what Facebook’s standards tell us most clearly is why we need to fight for the First Amendment at every challenge. These standards are the product of fear (of liability), public relations (based on the calculus of popularity rather than right and wrong), and societal values reflected through the fun house mirror of the Facebook crew’s own preferences and biases. Yet so widespread is the Facebook phenomenon that these arbitrary and contradictory taboos are certain to have substantial effects on the culture. You don’t want this muddled crew having a disproportional effect on society’s ethics. It would be far preferable to have no restrictions on Facebook at all.
I’ve just got to find a better way to keep in touch with my friends.
So do you.