Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The right to freedom of expression on facebook: Do we have a valid claim against censorship in social media?




 
Image by Giorgi Balakhadze, Wikimedia Commons (I have no rights to this image)

So, it happened. One of my facebook friends got "edited". Without any further notice, one of his posts about the Gaza conflict vanished from his wall. The post itself was not really radical, it linked to an official article. In his next post he mentioned this. Three of his friends commented that it had happened to them as well. All posts were about Gaza. None of the users were notified by facebook. I think that this case of "silent editing" presents a fitting topic for “justice everywhere”. A rather familiar theme of justice rears its head here, namely the fundamental right of free speech. Do we have a right to express ourselves freely in social media? Should we? 

Facebook’s editing policies have been widely discussed, for instance in the case of a cancer-survivor put her post-mastectomy-pictures up. They were considered pornographic by facebook and consequently removed. Public outrage followed, in the wake of which facebook changed its policy, explicitly allowing post-mastectomy photos. Other incidents included the removal of posts by gay activists or of pictures of artwork or photographs of new-born with a severe birth defect. Most of these cases were not silent, however. Users got notified by facebook.

Facebook explicitly reserves the right to remove content referring to their “community standards” that everyone who joins facebook must agree to. They also state that they do not usually scan posts themselves, but react to complaints by other users that find certain content offensive. The reports are collected by an admin who reviews whether the content does in fact violate facebook’s standards. Thus, not everything that is reported will be removed. Yet, it is ultimately up to facebook to decide what stay’s up and what doesn’t.  (Interestingly, facebook has recently outsourced this work to the firm “oDesk”)

The tone of most of the articles I have quoted above displays a strong sense of entitlement: posters are often furious that their content is taken down. It seems that they feel curtailed in their right to express themselves via facebook. Are these claims justifiable? A powerful (mainly legal) counter-argument comes to mind: facebook is not a governmental organisation; it is a private company only bound by the general laws of the countries it operates in. Arguing on the level of political liberalism, a similar argument could be formulated by pointing out that nobody has to join facebook. People join willingly and knowing that facebook is a platform run by a private company. They need to agree to the latter’s terms and conditions (if they bother to read them), they do not need to post anything and they can terminate their account anytime. The latter is often much easier said than done, but still. Thus, users do not seem to possess the right to post whatever they want. If users do not like it, facebook might retort, they can use other platforms.

Regardless, I want to make a case on the basis of considerations of public justice that facebook needs to honour a right to free expression. The main reason is, in simple words, that facebook is just too big and influential to be excluded from further legal and ethical constraints – for example constraints on classic media or the monitoring that companies underlie which have a monopoly. Private persons, companies, newspapers, tv-channels, non-profit organisations etc. use it to spread information, to present themselves or get in contact with each other. Facebook should therefore be treated as the big media player that it is -  like google. The latter is already familiar with legal claims

      Based on this general assumption, I like to raise four legal-ethical points to argue why and how facebook should honour the right for free expression.
  1. Constitutional rights can be applied to non-governmental organisations, as the laws of some countries show. For instance, German and Austrian law describes the model of a so-called “thirdparty effect of constitutional rights”. The effect comes into play when the people involved have possess “very unequal economic and social power”, e.g. in the relationship between employers and employees. Analogously one could argue that the power gap between companies such as google or facebook and their users is large enough to warrant the consideration that users can evoke their constitutional rights
  2. Since facebook has an enormous bearing on the public debate of political and social issues, it should be subject to media laws and political scrutiny. In analogy to the google case, rights to privacy, to inform themselves freely or not to be harassed need to be respected. Some of them are already part of facebook’s "community standards", but facebook is the only that monitors their enforcement. 
  3. Facebooks own standards formulate obligations to their users. Facebook promises to leave the rights to content in the user’s hand, whenever standards are not violated. If not, they promise to notify the user (s. point 4 below). It should be made sure that facebook adheres to its own standards.
  4. Transparency presents a prominent principle in procedural justice. People have a right to be informed about the matters that concern them, especially in public interaction and deliberation. If facebook is editing content silently, it clearly violates this right.
What my colleague experienced can, in my view, called “censorship” (a term that is usually reserved for government action) in a strong form. My point is thus that governmental institutions should have a way to interfere in this case. At least they should monitor processes more closely. This includes that facebook discloses it policies and operations. What do you think?

P.S. I admit to being a frequent facebook user to gather information and keep in contact with people I do not see on a regular basis. Interestingly, my post linking to an article about Gideon Levy and his reports from Gaza is still up, while it disappeared from other walls. Not sure what that means.

Monday, 21 July 2014

What does it mean to be a spectator to injustice everwhere?




Given that this blog is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, it seemed obvious to me that the topic for this week’s blog had to be the injustice perpetrated by the state of Israel. However as I sat down to write I realized that there is very little I could write that hasn’t already been written and shared a million times over (often thanks to social media). So instead I would like to raise a few questions about the relationship between ‘injustice anywhere’ and ‘spectatorship’*. With regard to this relationship I would like to briefly raise the following six questions.

1.     What does our commitment to justice mean if we allow our attention to be easily distracted – whether by sports, consumerism, etc?
2.     Is it easier to get involved in a struggle for justice when one does not feel responsible?
3.     How, and why, has our sense of direct political responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice?
4.     Setting aside questions of privacy etc., has Facebook (and other such social media sites) helped make people more or less politically informed and/or active?
5.     What does it do to the spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness?
6.     Does not knowing what a just solution would be for a particular situation make it harder to speak up against injustice?

1.    The past two weeks this blog focused on what was central to so many across the globe – world cup football. Looking at my Facebook feed – it is clear that for many people who identify (in some manner) as being committed to justice (e.g. as activists, academics etc.) our attention was divided between the horrors in Gaza and the desire to be distracted by the drama of football. But even with all the excitement of world cup football, politics and injustice were always in the shadows. Furthermore, thanks to some players issues such as sexism, racism, poverty and even Gaza were (momentarily) brought to the forefront of the viewers minds. While I can’t pretend that I didn’t appreciate the distraction of the world cup, I am disappointed in myself. Why was it so easy to get caught up the excitement of the Red Devils when it was surrounded by so much injustice – both that directly connected to world cup football (and discussed over the past two weeks on this blog) and in so many other parts of the world? The question I was forced to ask myself was: am I as committed to justice as I pretend to be? Can such a fickle commitment offer any serious challenge to injustice? Or, is it possible that these types of distractions, sports, consumerism, entertainment etc., are intentionally created as part of the structures of injustice (as was proposed by members of the Frankfurt Schule)?

2.  Another consideration is whether it is easier to be an active spectator in situations of injustice when one does not feel responsible? In other words, does participation – even for example something as simple as enjoying a football match – make it harder to speak out against the structural problems connected to FIFA, etc. This certainly seems to be the case with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there is no doubt that European history, European nation-states, and the EU have all played a significant role in this conflict most spectators do not feel personally responsible (except perhaps as consumerists of Israeli products). Could this be one of the reasons why there are many self proclaimed non-political people (e.g. on social media) who are now willing to make political statements?

3. A third question I wish to raise regarding the relationship between injustice and spectatorship is how, and why, has our sense of responsibility for injustice changed over time? Has it become harder to find a reason to act out against injustice? According to Margaret Canovan “Amid the turmoil of revolutionary activity in the nineteenth century, one of the less-noticed effects of the historical and sociological theories invented at that time was a weakening of man’s sense of direct responsibility for politics” (288). Canovan’s claim is that academic theories from the nineteenth century, which sought to introduce stability in chaotic times, actually contributed to the disempowerment of collective actions, such as those against injustice, and a lessening of our sense of responsibility for injustice. Or could it be the simple fact that we are now, more than ever, aware of how much injustice there is everywhere that we find it harder to decide which struggle to contribute to? Or are we in fact more aware of injustice and committed to justice today then ever before?

4.    Closely connected to the previous question, one of the interesting realities of this current Gaza conflict has been the struggle between classical media sources (tv, newspapers, radio) and social media. There are several national settings in which the attention paid to the tragedies in Gaza by way of social media forced the more pro-Israel classical media sources to report on events in Gaza, and to reframe stories in a more balanced manner.  The question this raises is whether Facebook (and other such social media sites) have helped to make more politically informed spectators? Has Facebook created a virtual public sphere and is this to more political participation?

5.     After less than a week since this most recent Israel-Palestine conflict began, many spectators have begun to express a sense of immense frustration and helplessness. What can they, across the world, behind their computer screen, possibly do to prevent this injustice? Setting aside the question of what can actually be done, I think it might be worth asking what does it do to a spectator when we feel a strong sense of injustice combined with an immense feeling of helplessness? Does it make us more or less likely to act or does it further contribute to a weakening sense of direct responsibility for politics?

6.   Last but not least, a question that is perhaps true for most situations of injustice but glaringly so with regard to the Middle East conflict: does not knowing what a just solution would be make it harder to speak up against injustice? Having spent my afternoon at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, I was struck by how divided both the actors and spectators were. While most participants were willing to make statements (in front of a camera) regarding the need to stop the injustices against Palestinians, it was much harder to find volunteers to make specific political proposals. Speaking to the spectators – in this case the people who came to observe the demonstration and who expressed outrage at the injustice of the state of Israel – many chose not to participate because they didn’t know what a just resolution to this conflict should be. Is it the case that the gap between identifying injustice and outlining justice prevents many spectators from becoming actors?



* A spectator is someone sitting safely behind their computer or television screen observing, reading, blogging, passionately debating etc. situations of injustice.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Dribbling responsibility: What do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?


 
In last week’s post, Siba drew our attention to one of the most widely noted events of this summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014. While taking notice of a wide range of ethical issues arising in the context of the World Cup, the discussion focussed on the organizational status of FIFA and the question of whether the tax exemptions it enjoys (and its status as a charity) are justified from a moral point of view. This week, we would like to follow Siba’s steps by raising some ethical questions regarding the World Cup and similar mega sporting events (e.g. the Olympic Games) from a different, but complementary angle. Setting aside the issue of taxation, we are concerned with some of the other problems anticipated in last week’s post and the responsibilities related to them.

As noted last week, the realization of major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup can come into tension with concerns of distributive justice and human rights. With regard to distributive justice, the public expenditure required by an event of the size of the World Cup raises the question of social opportunity costs. According to estimates, the infrastructure expenses incurred by the Brazilian government in preparation for the World Cup amount to approximately $11bn. If put to alternative uses, these resources could arguably have contributed to significant advances in education, health, and other field of social investment. An ethical evaluation of the decision to invest in the World Cup will of course need to take into account the revenues flowing from the event, their distribution within society, as well as, for example, the future value of infrastructure projects. Whatever the result of such an evaluation would be in the case of Brazil, it is clear that, at least under certain circumstances, a government’s decision to host the World Cup can come at the price of unjust social opportunity costs.

In addition to the question of priorities of public investment, there are a number of ways in which the realization of mega sporting events can come into conflict with human rights concerns. Relevant issues include eviction and involuntary displacement of people in the wake of construction projects, police brutality in reaction to public protests and demonstrations, and the implementation of labour standards. The potential severity of the latter issue was recently brought to light by media reports highlighting the labour conditions of migrant workers in Qatar, the host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. According to the Guardian, at least 44 Nepalese workers died in Qatar during a period of only two months. On this basis, the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that up to 4,000 workers could lose their lives while working for World Cup-related projects.

The fact that there is a real risk that the realization of mega sporting events may come into conflict with concerns of distributive justice and human rights raises the question of who should bear responsibility for preventing such conflicts from occurring. One possible answer consists of placing the responsibility exclusively on the government in question. Concerns of distributive justice and human rights are commonly thought to fall into the primary sphere of responsibility of national governments and a government’s decision to apply as a host is entirely voluntary. Therefore, if a successful application would lead a government to neglect its obligations of justice and human rights, then it seems that it is the government in question who is under an obligation to refrain from submitting the application in the first place. Other actors involved in the selection process, such as FIFA as an awarding body, in contrast, may appear to bear no responsibility for the ensuing consequences. This view, at least, seems to be suggested by FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke who observes that "FIFA is not the United Nations. FIFA is about sport," and thus “cannot be seen as responsible for what's happening in different countries."

This view, however, seems to ignore the ethical significance of FIFA’s role in determining World Cup hosts. In the case of some countries, conflicts with concerns of distributive justice and human rights will be foreseeable as early as at the stage of application. Even if justice and human rights are thought to be the primary responsibility of national governments, FIFA seems to be under a duty to prevent these foreseeable conflicts by not awarding the World Cup to such countries. The fact that current bidding rules lack any concern for such conflicts has to count as a clear violation of this duty. This calls for a reform of bidding rules, for example in a way that takes into account a country’s human rights record.

Ultimately, the realisation of mega sporting events such as the World Cup rests on the support of visitors and TV audiences around the world. Insofar as current bidding rules are insufficiently sensitive to ethical concerns, should fans be held responsible for the moral costs of mega sporting events? While this may seem far-fetched to some, it is clear that audiences make the World Cup possible in the first place and have significant power to influence the terms under which it is carried out. One way to exercise this power would be in the form of a viewers’ boycott. We think that in cases in which significant injustices and human rights violations are at stake, such a boycott is what responsibility requires from viewers.

It may be objected that a boycott is an ineffective way for viewers to discharge their responsibility. After all, once a tournament is in the process of being carried out, most moral costs will already have been incurred, such that a boycott will do nothing to prevent them. Nevertheless, a boycott may send a powerful signal to prevent problematic practices in future tournaments and influence the outcome of future bidding processes. In addition, even setting aside consequentialist considerations, one may wonder about the morality of watching the World Cup and other comparable events. In cases where such events have a clearly tainted moral footprint, this seems to raise a question of ethical integrity when it comes to deriving enjoyment from them. So, while you may be preparing for a night in front of the TV to find out who is going to win Brazil 2014, consider the moral costs of mega sporting events. In your view, what do we owe to the real losers of the World Cup?

Sara Amighetti and Florian Ostmann

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Taxing FIFA: Asides from having their board room modelled on the war room from doctor strangelove, are there any other reasons as to why FIFA should be taxed?


Some have called it the best football World Cup ever. And it has indeed been incredibly exciting.[1] Yet the circumstances which brought us the event (and will bring us future ones) are very troubling. For a year now, there has been widespread anti-World Cup protests and riots in Brazil crying against the high cost of the event for Brazilian citizens. Investigations have revealed the slave conditions migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup infrastructure are subject to in Qatar. At the same time, there has been renewed criticism directed at FIFA, football’s international governing body. There are corruption scandals, FIFA’s dismissive attitude to the Brazil riots, their inaction on the Qatar front, and then there is the tax issue.

FIFA demands from any country who wishes to bid for hosting the world cup full tax exemptions for itself and its subsidiaries and tax breaks for its official sponsors. Estimates are that tax exemptions in Brazil, for instance, will cost up to half a billion dollars.  To many this sounds outrageous (see video).  And so it does to me.

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight tells us perfectly why we should hate FIFA 

But why exactly is it outrageous?

Some, including FIFA and the Brazilian government, have argued that the country hosting the World Cup stands to greatly benefit economically from the infrastructure investments and tourism, a benefit that surpasses the amount of tax exemption in question.  Whether such forecasts about the benefits to the host country are correct is highly contested as these rosy forecasts do not take into consideration many indirect social and economic costs (worker deaths, security costs, crowding out other tourists, etc...)An indication that hosting events such as the World Cup is unattractive even to the richer countries is the fact that only three European countries bid to host to the European Championship in 2020.


But is the issue only a question of mutual benefit? Surely we don’t expect countries to provide corporations or investors with full scale tax exemptions on the account that they generate net benefits to the economy. Countries are perhaps often forced to provide incentives for investors and corporations due to tax competition but this is reason to call for more global tax harmonization. And whereas companies and investors competing against one another may, in at least some way, be justified to seek conditions that render them competitive FIFA has no competitor. It is the sole body responsible for organizing the World Cup. And, it is a non-profit organisation.

Perhaps it being a non-profit organization can actually justify the tax exemption. After all , it is common, and we often think laudable, to exempt non-profit organization from taxes. The fact that FIFA actually makes a lot of profit (in 2012 it was $ 89 million)  often raises eyebrows, but I don’t think this is in itself the issue. What makes an organization non-profit is not that it doesn’t make profit but that it does not distribute its profits or dividends to shareholders and instead uses its profits to further achieve or promote its goals.


We definitely have some good reasons to exempt some non-profit organizations from taxes irrespective of the profit they make or the net economic benefit that accrues from their activities. We do, for example, want to have organizations that track human rights abuses. Evidence that they make huge profit or that their net financial benefit locally or internationally is negative is not reason against exempting them from taxes as long as we know that their profits are being invested to pursue their aims. To the contrary, the more profit they make the better!

Protecting and tracking human rights abuses is an aim we want to pursue even at a large financial cost. Yet, it is not clear that this applies to the variety of aims pursued by the variety of non-profit organisations. It is certainly not clear when it comes to FIFA whose aim is to promote sports and football. Yes, there are the commitments to anti-racism and anti-discrimination, but there is little done to prove them more than slogans. Perhaps if serious effort were being done to promote those aims; if FIFA for instance were to be a driver for labor law reforms in countries like Qatar; or if it were successful in promoting other humans rights (say the right of children in poor countries to play in safe environments) then this could be good reason to exempt them from taxes. That said, even if such were the case, the tax burden ought not to fall on the hosting country but be fairly distributed on the international community.

Absent such aims, the question of whether promoting football is a ‘worthy’ pursuit, perhaps like the question of promoting some forms of art, ought to be settled democratically. This would exclude non-democratic countries from bidding for the world cup, but that doesn’t strike me as an outrageous conclusion.




[1] Until the last of three teams I supported returned home, that is.