For the past month, Facebook has been criticised by social media users in India for purportedly blocking and putting under scrutiny accounts and pages that shared posts critical of the government, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Right-Wing groups.

The social networking company, which has 241 million users in the country, has denied the allegations.

On September 26, Facebook blocked the account of journalist Mohammad Anas for 30 days after he shared a photograph of a trader’s cash memo with a message at the bottom that read: “Kamal ka phool hamari bhool.” It was our mistake to vote for the lotus. The lotus is the BJP’s party symbol.

Other accounts that shared the post, though, are still on the site.

Social media users were outraged by Facebook’s action. On Twitter, posts critical of the company asked on what grounds it had blocked the account anasinbox.

A Facebook India official, who spoke with over the phone and did not wish to be identified, explained, “The main problem with the post was that it disclosed the bank account details of the concerned business person, which goes against the Community Standards of Facebook.”

The image with the line "Kamal ka phool, humari bhool". Blocking the account anasinbox for 30 days, Facebook said the image had given away the trader's bank account details. (Credit: Facebook)

Anasinbox wasn’t the only Facebook account to be blocked last month. On September 27, Humans of Hindutva – which shares satirical posts criticising the BJP government – uploaded a screenshot of a warning message it had received from Facebook. The message said the moderator could be asked to reveal his or her identity if it continued to share content similar to the one against which the site had received a complaint. The post in question, titled “Come take a ride on India’s bullet train”, was a graphical representation of a real bullet with the photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Gauri Lankesh, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Scholar Kalburgi, rationalist Pansare and activist Dabholkar were all killed between 2013 and 2015 while Lankesh, a journalist who was critical of Hindutva groups, was shot dead on September 5. Facebook later took down the post.

Also in September, Facebook suspended the account of graphic designer and documentary film-maker Gautam Benegal after he shared someone else’s post titled “Ways to identify a Hindutva sympathiser”.

Explaining how it deals with complaints, Facebook said in an email to that every case of reported content is examined by real people and that the site bases its action on two guidelines – its Community Standards and its Real Name policy.

The Facebook statement read:

“Suppressing content or preventing people from seeing what matters most to them is contradictory to our mission. Facebook’s Community Standards exist to help keep our community safe and free from abusive behaviour, including fake accounts, hate speech and bullying and harassment. To protect the privacy of our community and prevent fraudulent activity, our policies also prohibit sharing of bank account details. We allow people to use Facebook to challenge ideas and raise awareness about important issues, but we will remove content that violates our Community Standards. We have real people looking at reported content, and it doesn’t matter how many times a piece of content is reported, it will be treated the same. One report is enough to take down content if it violates our policies, and multiple reports will not lead to the removal of content if it meets our Community Standards.”

With this, Facebook ruled out the theory that it uses a set algorithm to block accounts and that the process does not involve humans. Several posts on the Facebook Help Community forum, in which users can raise questions and write about their experiences, have contributed to the algorithm theory for years.

Not the first time

Facebook’s actions in India have drawn comparisons with the blocking of numerous accounts and pages in Pakistan in 2014 that were severely criticised by advocates of free speech. Among the Pakistani accounts that faced action were Left-Wing political pages and the pages of a popular rock band whose members spoke out against the Taliban, a radical militant organisation. After an outcry on social media, several of the accounts were restored. In a report, The New York Times quoted a Facebook spokesperson in London saying it had blocked the pages after receiving an official request from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, and that the company’s policy was to adhere to local laws.

Government agencies approaching Facebook for removal of content is not new, even in India.

According to the latest Facebook Global Government Request Report, published every six months, the Government of India made 2,753 requests for removal of content in 2016 – an average of 15 posts every two days. It was second only to France, which made 2,896 requests. While the United States topped the list in seeking information on user data, the report showed it did not make a request for removal of content.

However, in the case of the accounts it suspended in India last month, Facebook has not mentioned the role of any government agency.

Asked how it decides on the period of suspension, the company did not give a specific answer. It said,

“As outlined in our Community Standards, the consequences for violating our Community Standards vary depending on the severity of the violation and the person’s history on Facebook. For instance, we may warn someone for a first violation, but if we continue to see further violations we may restrict a person’s ability to post on Facebook.”

Transparency, clarity

Such a lack of clarity has led to demands for greater transparency.

Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama, a website that provides information and analysis on digital and telecom businesses in India, said platforms like Facebook and Twitter have emerged as carriers of speech, and governments can censor speech by pressuring the sites to take content down. “These platforms are not liable for the speech they carry but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a responsibility to users,” he added. “There needs to be greater transparency, in terms of information on who has asked for the content to be taken down, when and why, as well as a mechanism for getting the content reinstated.”

Facebook users also complain that the company’s Real Name policy is ambiguous.

On September 18, Facebook blocked the account Unfair Web a day after it shared screenshots of WhatsApp messages sent to journalists in the National Capital Region warning them against writing anything critical of the Narendra Modi government, the BJP or its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said a journalist associated with the account. It was taken down even after the moderators reportedly uploaded their identity documents on Facebook’s directions.

Another journalist associated with the account blamed this on the company’s Real Name policy – Unfair Web was taken down because it was registered as a Facebook account and not a page. The journalist pointed out that there was no clarity on such technicalities.

Elaborating on the Real Name policy, a Facebook India spokesperson said:

“We require people to be their real selves on Facebook. We’re committed to making sure people can express themselves and use the names they’re known by, whether that’s their legal name or not. When people stand behind their opinions and actions with their authentic name and reputation, our community is more accountable. If we discover that you have multiple personal profiles, we may ask you to close the additional profiles. We also remove any profiles that impersonate other people.

“If you want to create a presence on Facebook for your pet, organisation, favourite movie, games character, or another purpose, please create a Page instead of a Facebook Profile. Pages can help you conduct business, reach out to fans, or promote a cause you care about.”

But the policy is known to have caused major confusion in the past. In November 2015, Facebook blocked the account of Isis Anchalee, a software engineer in the United States. The problem was with her first name, which happens to be an acronym for the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, a banned terrorist outfit. Though Facebook restored Anchalee’s account hours after she presented her identity documents, and apologised for the inconvenience, it never specified why it had blocked the account in the first place.

Such errors have led Facebook users across the world to question the policy. Writing in the magazine Wired, Nadia Drake, a contributing writer with National Geographic, spoke about being locked out of her own account over a complaint that it was pseudonymous, and called the Real Name policy “confusing” and “contextual”.