How Prisons Are Taking Inmates Off Facebook

© AP Photo In this undated frame-grab image from Facebook, Islam Dunn’s Facebook page is seen. Dunn is a prisoner in South Carolina who is serving 20 years for attempted armed robbery nearly two years ago. From the inside the prison, Dunn…
© AP Photo In this undated frame-grab image from Facebook, Islam Dunn’s Facebook page is seen. Dunn is a prisoner in South Carolina who is serving 20 years for attempted armed robbery nearly two years ago. From the inside the prison, Dunn…

It takes a little bit of work to get off Facebook. To suspend your profile, you have to walk through some settings pages and submit a form explaining why you’re de-activating. And if you want to permanently delete a profile, you have to submit a different form, then wait several days.

But for at least four years, the Facebook accounts of incarcerated Americans had a fast track to suspension.

Since at least 2011, prison officials who wanted to suspend an inmate’s profile could submit a request to Facebook through its “Inmate Account Takedown Request” page. The company would then suspend the account—immediately, often with “no questions asked,” reports Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who wrote about having discovered the page.

This relationship could get cozier than a web form, too. In an email correspondence first published by the EFF, a California corrections officer asked a Facebook employee to “please remove these [attached] profiles” of currently incarcerated inmates.

“Thank you for providing me with this information. I apologize for the delay in getting these profiles taken down,” a Facebook employee replied. “I have located and removed all five accounts from the site. I apologize again!”

This fast-and-loose suspension regime has now changed. Or, at least it appears that way: Last week, Facebook announced measures that will create a higher threshold for removing inmates’ accounts. The company now requests much more information from corrections officers about an inmate’s account, and it also requires officers to demonstrate that inmates have violated law or prison policy in the first place. This was never something it asked about in its previous form.

This is a big change. As Maass points out, suspending an inmate’s account is a kind of state censorship: A government agency asks Facebook, “hey, can you make this speech go away?” and Facebook says “sure,” without seeing if the inmate was threatening someone or otherwise violating its terms of service. A Facebook spokesman said questions about its role in what critics say is censorship would be better posed to lawmakers.

Facebook provides data about censorship requests (it calls them “content restriction requests”) for many countries, including Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But while it provides some information about U.S. national security requests, it does not disclose how many American “content restriction requests” it receives. A Facebook spokesman declined to provide statistics about how many profiles were suspended to The Atlantic. So we’re left with estimates: The EFF found that in two states alone (California and South Carolina) the combined number of suspended accounts exceeded 700.

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Source: The Atlantic | Robinson Meyer

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