On October 28th, the GNI held the third call as part of our “Emerging Issues” learning series, which is focused on highlighting, exploring, and deepening our understanding and responses to emerging online free expression and privacy issues.

Overview of the Issue

Online service providers usually reserve—and often exercise—the right to deactivate accounts or remove content for various reasons. Content takedowns and account deactivations can occur because of legitimate terms of service violations by users, such as spamming or harassment. In other cases, misunderstandings of terms of service by users, mistakes by automated content monitoring processes, or targeted campaigns to “flag” a user’s legitimate post can lead to decisions to remove content or deactivate accounts. These issues may be exacerbated by systems that enable users to report content that violates terms of service yet do not provide sufficient supervision and safeguards; these systems may also be open to abuse by users or governments that disagree with a view voiced by someone on the platform. In some cases, unclear appeals processes or a lack of other forms of remedy can leave users with few opportunities to resolve their issues with the platform in question.
Account deactivation and content removal processes are of particular concern for human rights activists. Web 2.0 platforms are invaluable tools for many activists, but the nature of the material posted by activists may makeC this content especially likely to be targeted for removal.

The GNI has been actively engaged with this issue, and hosted a call in April on key cases and challenges.  A follow up call, in July 2010, featured a discussion of next steps for GNI:

1.)   Helping a broad range of companies develop their understanding of the human rights impact of content removal/account deactivation.
2.)   Showcasing company best practices in this space and building a clearinghouse for information related to account deactivations/content removal.
3.)   Building a network that can connect activists facing account deactivations/content removal with operational people at the relevant companies.
4.)   A small working group, led by the Berkman Center and the Center for Democracy & Technology is currently developing good practices and guidelines for companies around account deactivation and content removal. They will draw on recent developments and outcomes from these calls; a draft document will be circulated in the coming months, and input from participants will be invited.

This most recent call focused on updates on each of these priority activities, with a particular focus on identifying areas where GNI participants and other stakeholders can have an impact on the human rights risks implicated by account deactivation and content removal processes.

Learning Call #3: Agenda

GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan kicked off the call with a description of recent developments, including considerable activity and dialogue regarding the issue as it relates to user-generated sites and social networking platforms at the Internet at Liberty conference in Budapest and elsewhere. Other notable examples of late include the suspended account of a LiveJournal blogger who was embroiled in debates about Azerbaijan and Turkey and the suspended Facebook accounts of three Hong Kong users who were administrators of a group created to protest a luxury housing development.

Speakers from a company, academic, and NGO perspectives then made brief remarks on key aspects of the issue, including:
Recommendations for activists, companies, and the GNI around account deactivation policies and practices, including the importance of establishing strong human rights expertise within technology firms; creating ties and channels of communication between human rights organizations that face similar challenges; and developing a monitoring and response system to report suspicious activity more promptly. Participants also discussed the flip side of this issue – i.e. unauthorized account intrusion requiring temporary account disabling or deactivation. For additional information, see “Access recommendations to the GNI on account deactivation, content removal and unauthorized account access.”

The company perspective focused on the ways in which diverse companies necessarily develop different processes for handling requests for content removal or account deactivation, including transparent and timely appeals processes. One participant highlighted the complexity of the issue when viewed through the lens of account control.  Such questions can emerge both when re-instating legitimate accounts and when deactivating compromised accounts.

The group agreed that establishing a human rights contact group could help expedite the resolution of such situations. However, a careful balance must be struck between creating a group that is effective, but also decentralized and informal; capable of acting swiftly, but also resistant to misuse or capture. Some participants noted that such a group should only be used for individual cases of urgent human rights issues, cases that cannot or have not been appropriately handled within the normal customer support chain.

Another focal point of the discussion was the idea of a clearinghouse for information related to requests for account deactivation and content removal. Such a clearinghouse could help researchers, activists, companies and others develop their understanding of trends and issues, and collect, analyze and write about account deactivation trends and processes. Participants noted that gathering specific data and information from platforms regarding how they are auditing human rights cases could be a useful mapping exercise.

The call concluded with participants outlining next steps for the GNI and its members.  In addition to broadening the conversation into other areas like expedited deactivation, the GNI should focus on implementing the “next steps” outlined during the call, including: developing good practices and guidance for companies and advocates; creating an information communication network that includes activists and contacts within companies; and taking the first steps toward building a clearinghouse, or alternative mechanism for collecting examples, numbers and other useful analyses and data points.

Key Resources