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Facebook critics’ webpage removed over false phishing allegations

Real Facebook Oversight Board alleges Facebook is trying to censor it for speaking out against the social media company’s behaviour

A coalition of prominent Facebook critics has been forced offline after an internet service provider (ISP) took its webpage down.   

The Real Facebook Oversight Board (RFOB) – a group made up of two dozen academics, activists, lawyers and journalists who have been vocal critics of the social media company – was launched last month with the goal of holding Facebook accountable ahead of the upcoming US presidential election on 3 November.  

Shortly after holding its first press conference on 30 September, in which the group demanded the social media company take action “to protect this election and preserve our democracy”, Facebook complained to Endurance International-owned ISP SupportNation, which then took the RFOB’s webpage down on 7 October.

In a letter to a key RFOB member, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, SupportNation said it had “received a complaint that the domain name…is involved in phishing”.

While it is unclear what evidence was presented by Facebook to prove the webpage’s malicious intent, it is highly unusual for an ISP to take such action without first seeking to verify the claims through dispute resolution procedures that allow operators to challenge any allegations.

Endurance International and SupportNation did not respond to Computer Weekly’s enquiries about the action by the time of publication.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary action. Facebook filed a complaint against not one but two of our ISP providers, the second of which removed our website on the basis of a false allegation made by Facebook. This is a company that has spent years defending its failure to take responsibility for hate speech, racism and holocaust denial by making spurious arguments around ‘free speech’ literally driving its critics off the internet,” Cadwalladr told Computer Weekly.

“Given its power and reach – and the fact that the ISP didn’t even think of standing up to Facebook – I would hope people understand the gravity and seriousness of what Facebook has done and why this is such a chilling move.”

“Given its power and reach, I would hope people understand the gravity and seriousness of what Facebook has done and why this is such a chilling move”
Carole Cadwalladr, Real Facebook Oversight Board

When asked by Computer Weekly why the ordinary dispute resolution procedures were not followed, a Facebook spokesperson said the company was unaware of the action until it had been brought to its attention.

“While we’re still investigating, it appears that this website was automatically flagged by a vendor because it contained the word “facebook” in the domain and action was taken without consulting with us,” they said.

“We remove trademark violations to prevent bad actors from setting up websites which could cause confusion, or be used for phishing attacks, fraud, or scams. We are working to lift any restrictions that are in place with internet service providers.”

Shoshana Zuboff, a member of RFOB and author of The age of surveillance capitalism, added on Twitter that Facebook’s role in the domain take-down “looks like authoritarian censorship and testimony to Mr. Zuckerberg’s tyranny” and “showcases the problems we joined up to fight: power, economic self-dealing, political corruption”.

She added: “Even if it were ‘just business’ triggered by domain name, consider the atrocity: FB allows Trump lies, trolls, calls to violence, fraudulent election claims, misinformation, voter suppression, fake videos, but acts quickly and decisively in favor of its domain protection.”

When Facebook first learned of the group, its director of governance and global affairs, Brent Harris, contacted a number of RFOB funders to express his disappointment and tell them they were undermining the company’s own oversight board.

“There is a real pattern of behaviour at work here,” said Cadwalladr. “From going after our funders to try and destroy the board before it had even got off the ground, to sending out a spokesman to trash talk us on Twitter, this is a company that as well as being rattled by what the Real Facebook Oversight Board is doing, I’d also argue that it has lost any moral compass it may claim to have had.”

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