facebook_knife

You might soon see beheadings in your News Feed.

Facebook yesterday confirmed that it has changed its terms and services to permit the sharing of violent videos on its network — as long as they aren’t glorifying violence. The change caused a furor on Facebook’s service as many condemned the company’s decision and the supposed secrecy with which it made the change.

Complaints are to be expected. Not because it’s ever been particularly hard to find gruesomely violent videos, but because it’s Facebook, the place people go to see baby pictures and chat with their friends and do other things that don’t involve people’s heads being lopped off. Allowing these videos to remain on its service was bound to upset many of Facebook’s users.

“Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they’re connected to controversial events on the ground, such as human rights abuses, acts of terrorism and other violent events,” Facebook said in a statement about the change to Reuters. “People share videos of these events on Facebook to condemn them. If they were being celebrated, or the actions in them encouraged, our approach would be different.”

The beheadings aren’t the problem, though. (Not for Facebook, anyway.) The issue is that Facebook has decided to allow potentially disturbing content onto its service under the condition that it’s meant to criticize violence instead of spreading, encouraging, or glorifying it. That’s an incredibly subjective distinction that will make enforcing the policy difficult and, as some have already demonstrated, controversial.

Many will object to seeing such videos on Facebook regardless of the creator’s intent. Others will object to Facebook banning such videos, because they believe that the Web should be a haven of free speech and other idyllic ideas. Any compromise between these two fairly absolute positions will leave a lot of people unhappy.

The free speech argument goes something like this: “[This] shows how much Facebook is in power to decide whatever will or will not be expressed through its network,” La Quadrature du Net co-founder Jeremie Zimmermann told the BBC. “It plays a profoundly anti-democratic role when it makes any such choice, whatever the limits are and whatever the good reasons it uses to make the decision. Only a judicial authority should be able to restrict fundamental freedoms according to the rule of law.”

The thing is, Facebook can allow or disallow certain content on its service by law. Certain actions on Facebook, such as “liking” a political candidate’s page, are covered by free speech laws in the US. That doesn’t mean that Facebook is committed to free speech, though. The company has its own “governing document that we’ll all live by,” as Mark Zuckerberg described the terms of service in 2009, and that governing document says that some things, like beheading videos, are allowed while other things, like nipples, are not.

Allowing some videos to remain on the service because they are meant to serve one, specific purpose is sure to anger those who believe that beheadings have no place on Facebook; disallowing other videos because they serve a different purpose is sure to anger people, like Zimmermann, who believe that Facebook shouldn’t be censoring content on its network at all. By introducing a shade of gray into a previously black-and-white set of rules, Facebook has managed to anger everyone and please no one.

Beheadings, as it turns out, might not be the best thing Facebook can compromise on. Who’d have thunk?

[Update: Facebook seems to have reversed its decision on allowing violent videos and content onto its network, per a report from AllThingsD.]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]