Facebook is being sued by a Polish drug prevention group over free speech violation

Facebook’s efforts to shut down harmful and malicious content on its platform have landed it in a European courtroom, after an anti-drug abuse organization in Poland claimed that a freeze on its Facebook Pages is a violation of its rights to free speech.

The Civil Society Drug Policy Initiative (Społeczna Inicjatywa Narkopolityki in Polish, which goes by the slightly unfortunate abbreviation of ‘SIN’) says that it has filed a complaint with the District Court of Warsaw against Facebook for violating articles 23-24 of the Polish Civil Code, which ensures free speech for individuals and organizations.

SIN says that Facebook deleted several of its pages on Facebook and Instagram for violating its community standards in 2018 and 2019 (here, here, here, herehere, and one page that appears to have been claimed by someone else in the interim). Another page SIN set up after the others were shut down appears to still be up for now.

SIN is asking for Facebook to reinstate its Pages and its followers, and to apologise publicly for its actions.

When contacted for a response, Facebook declined to comment on the case.

SIN describes itself as a Polish NGO that runs educational activities to make people aware of the harmful consequences of drug use, and provides assistance to people drug abusers.

The group is being supported in its legal action by lawyers working pro-bono with a Polish non-profit called Panoptykon, which was set up in 2009 to find and help fight cases against tech companies where it believes personal rights are being violated in our current “surveillance society” (its description, and also the reason for the panopticon reference).

Panoptykon is a busy group these days: another case that it filed against Google and the IAB in Poland over targeted advertising recently got referred up to the authorities in Ireland (where many cases are heard as a result of the country being home to many global HQs) and Belgium (home of the European Commission.

It’s not exactly clear what Facebook found offensive in SIN’s content since Facebook declined to respond.

From the looks of it, SIN itself does not take your typical “don’t do drugs” approach but instead focuses on the concept of harm reduction. It sets up a presence at clubs, festivals and other events where people might take recreational drugs. Then, it “leave[s] the assumption that it’s best not to start using drugs, or to stop if you do so [since] it’s not always possible. If you are already using, we educate on how to do it with least damage possible.” It also offers methods for testing drugs and advice on what different drugs can do.

SIN notes that the UN, the EU, the National Bureau for the Prevention of Drug Addiction; Red Cross; Doctors Without Borders and many others support this approach.

However, it may be that its native approach appeared to Facebook’s algorithms as similar to groups that advocate using drugs. Alternatively, it may be that Facebook regarded SIN as taking a particular approach on a controversial subject — the best way to cope with illegal drug use — which would have run afoul of its guidelines. “The main goal of our action is to make sure that regardless of what decisions you make at parties, you have fun and keep it safe,” SIM notes on its site.

Social media platforms have come under fire for how their efforts to contain malicious or harmful content occasionally backfire by sometimes penalising more innocent accounts by mistake. Similarly, there have been accusations that rules designed by regulators to prevent harmful content on social media are partly responsible for the platforms mandating particularly stringent controls, which ironically end up violating the exact rights that regulators are trying to ensure, like free speech.

Facebook — which has had its share of heat from European regulators over issues like violations of personal privacy, data breaches, and the role it plays in helping to police its platform against abuses and misuse in democratic processes — has been working to improve the nuance of its controls, by making it more transparent to users when it has taken certain actions like shutting down pages or blocking content, and why. Panoptykon says that it believes this legal action, if successful, could help that evolution along.

“We hope that SIN vs Facebook will incentivize the portal to make further changes and implement ‘due process,’ thus establishing the standards also for other platforms,” Panoptykon notes. “In addition, with SIN vs Facebook we strive not only to persuade the platforms to create better internal procedures, but also to ensure that users who do not agree with their decisions can challenge them before an independent, external body, such as a court.”