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Why a Polish Minister Just Accused Facebook of Censorship

November 7, 2016, 5:53 PM UTC
Thomas Trutschel Photothek — Getty Images

Poland’s digital economy minister accused Facebook of censorship on Monday after the company suspended some users’ profiles for using a little-known far-right symbol.

The Falanga symbol, depicting a stylized hand holding a sword, was used by a banned radical nationalist group in the 1930s but is legal in Poland and other countries. It now serves as the logo of a far-right Polish group called ONR.

The row follows a wider global dispute over Facebook’s (FB) standards for removing content. Seventy rights groups asked the company in a letter last month to clarify its internal policies, which Facebook has since said it will review.

The Polish controversy started when the social network blocked a page used by nationalists to promote an Independence Day march. Last month it also removed numerous user posts containing a poster for the march that featured the Falanga, explaining that it considered the symbol historically related to hate speech.

Facebook “for sure has violated the rule of not using preventive censorship, which is a constitutional rule and can be curtailed solely by acts of law,” digital minister Anna Strezynska told privately owned Radio Zet.

She said the main problem was that Facebook’s rules contained imprecise phrases that were open to interpretation. She also called for a fast and efficient way to appeal Facebook decisions related to content.

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After user protests, Facebook has now reinstated the page of the Independence Day march and allowed posts including the poster with the Falanga, reversing its previous decisions.

“After one more verification and taking into account that the poster is inviting people to a legal and registered demonstration, we have decided that it can be published on Facebook in this context, despite containing a forbidden symbol,” Facebook’s press office said.

Its European vice-president for policy, Richard Allan, said in an open letter in Polish that Facebook’s standards for content removal were politically neutral and allowed for a wide range of political expression.

Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has used nationalist rhetoric to rally its supporters as it battles accusations from the European Union’s executive Commission, which it denies, that it has undermined the rule of law, including media pluralism.