UPDATED: The Norwegian press federaton (Norsk Presseforbundet) thought Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the “Oil Fund” should use its clout to punish Facebook for censorship. Prime Minister Erna Solberg joined protests in Norway against Facebook and was promptly censored herself, but Facebook ultimately backed down.
The press federation was calling on the Oil Fund’s ethics committee to evaluate whether Facebook has behaved unethically by removing historic photos from Norwegian members’ pages because they violated bans on nudity.
Facebook had been the target of an uproar in Norway since first a leading human rights researcher and then a well-known author published the famous and historic photo taken by Nick Ut of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm bomb attack during the Vietnam War. One of the children was a naked girl, and the iconic photo is widely credited with leading to the end of the war by vividly showing it horrors.
Censuring the censor
Facebook, however, determined that the photo violated its rules against nudity on Facebook pages. Not only was the photo removed from the site, author Tom Egeland was banned from Facebook himself after he’d shared the photo and articles that reported on Facebook’s censorship. The editor of a local Norwegian website, Nettavisen, was also blocked from the site for 24 hours after he criticized Facebook and also republished the photo.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) followed the controversy closely for weeks and reported Thursday how Facebook’s Norwegian critics were rallying the country’s most powerful force, its sheer wealth. The Oil Fund, which has stashed away Norwegian oil revenues for years to fund future pensions, has invested around NOK 13.5 billion (nearly USD 1.5 billion) in Facebook shares and owns 0.52 percent of the company. Norway’s press foundation thought it was time for the Oil Fund to “exert its power of ownership” and censure Facebook itself for violating freedom of expression.
War photo was not child porn
Norway’s biggest newspaper, Aftenposten, devoted its entire front page on Friday to the Facebook controversy, a move that was quickly picked up by international media. Headlined “Dear Mark Zuckerberg,” Aftenposten’s editor appealed to the Facebook founder to halt its “meaningless” censorship of historical events. Aftenposten also re-published the photo from the Vietnam War, only to see it removed, too. Aftenposten’s editor Espen Egil Hansen complained that Facebook couldn’t tell the difference between child pornography and a famous war photo.
Prime Minister Solberg, meanwhile, published the photo Facebook finds offensive on her Facebook page, only to see it removed as well. “Facebook missteps when they censor images like this,” Solberg wrote. “It stifles the freedom of speech.” Her minister in charge of cultural affairs also published the photo to test Facebook’s resolve, only to have the photo removed as well.
For NRK’s account of Facebook censoring the Norwegian government ministers, click here.
Facebook initially remained defiant, writing in an email to NRK as late as Thursday of last week that it simply wouldn’t allow photos of naked people because portions of Facebook’s online community “react” to such content. Facebook would continue to censor material it deemed inappropriate. In “serious cases,” the people publishing objectionable material would also be blocked.
Neither the Oil Fund’s management nor its ethics council would comment on its actions against individual companies. By the time the weekend rolled around, Facebook had backed down and allowed the Vietnam war photo to be published, meaning that the Norwegian protests succeeded in the end.