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Will Sex, Drugs, And Nazis Make It To Facebook's Instant Articles?

Now that Facebook is a publisher, it's going to have to grapple with censorship in a big way.

Posted on June 10, 2015, at 12:31 p.m. ET

As social platforms replace the web at the center of the digital publishing universe, those platforms will increasingly find themselves making uncomfortable choices: Who is a legitimate publisher? Where to draw the line?

And how, to apply the classic speech test to it, about the Nazis?

White supremacists, after all, want faster loading times too. The web editor of American Renaissance, Henry Woolf, told me he would "consider joining it, certainly," after I described Instant Articles to him.

A Facebook spokesperson didn't respond to an inquiry, however, whether a publication like his — it describes itself as "race realist"; the Anti-Defamation League and other groups describe it as white supremacist — would be welcome on the company's servers.

But classic free speech questions like these — and related ones about everything from acid to porn — are becoming increasingly important for companies like Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. It's not limited to just social media, either; the most recent entrant to the field is Apple, which announced its own native news app — Apple News — at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. (And Apple News will moderate content on its platform.)

All of them are wrestling increasingly with the fact that hazy and subjective terms of service — enforced easily on an individual — can be deeply polarizing when applied to a popular, or divisive, media outlet or personality. Facebook's Instagram quickly reversed course after deleting The Shade Room, a kind of TMZ for black celebrities that exists primarily on the platform. And Twitter two weeks ago wrestled with the case of Charles Johnson, a right-wing journalist and provocateur whom it banned from the service.

"It would be cool if it were open to everyone," Johnson said of Instant Articles in a telephone interview with BuzzFeed News. "It's difficult to say; obviously I've been censored by Twitter in a capricious and arbitrary way. I think Facebook would do similar kinds of things and censor speech that would not otherwise be censored."

The difference from controversies past: It's one thing to cause a publisher trouble on one of its promotional channels; it's another thing to delete the publication from its main platform.

Facebook's Instant Articles is the year's most talked-about new platform for publishers, a feature that stores articles on Facebook servers to speed up their loading, while at the moment allowing publishers to serve their own ads. Instant Articles were rolled out first to mainstream publishers — the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, National Geographic, and BuzzFeed among them — and are widely expected to be shared with other publishers if the project is well received by users.

If it works, fringe figures like Woolf will obviously be drawn to it. Indeed, the fringe has often been early to adapt new communications technologies, starting with the web itself.

So will other publishers already struggling with Facebook's standards, which ban things that are core to much of the web that Facebook is starting to absorb — women's nipples, say, and smoking weed.

Facebook, needless to say, did not invite the cannabis industry trade publication Dope Magazine to the Instant Articles trial. But they're already having trouble with the social network.

"I think Facebook needs to review its policies," says Jonathan Teeters, director of operations for Dope Magazine. Dope reports on the cannabis industry, and Teeters feels that it already gets left behind on the social network. "We trigger security protocols; we can't boost posts or advertise because we immediately get flagged," he said.

"We need better access to the tools that Facebook offers to other publications," Teeters said.

The alt-porn site Suicide Girls didn't make the Instant Articles rollout either.

And it too has had to navigate an uneven playing field on Facebook, posting links and teasers rather than its own content, said Alexis Crawford, who runs Suicide Girls' social media.

"We are very risqué, which means it can be very difficult to navigate," she said. (They have done so, incidentally, with great dexterity, running up 6 million Facebook fans.)

So, will Instant Articles be open to these ACLU poster children? What version of the First Amendment will extend itself to the dominant new publishing platforms?

It's unclear that Facebook and others have quite thought these things through yet.

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