Facebook is using its vast legal muscle to silence one of its most prominent critics.
The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group established last month in response to the tech giant’s failure to get its actual Oversight Board up and running before the presidential election, was forced offline on Wednesday night after Facebook wrote to the internet service provider demanding the group’s website — realfacebookoversight.org — be taken offline.
The group is made up of dozens of prominent academics, activists, lawyers, and journalists whose goal is to hold Facebook accountable in the run-up to the election next month. Facebook’s own Oversight Board, which was announced 13 months ago, will not meet for the first time until later this month, and won’t consider any issues related to the election.
In a letter sent to one of the founders of the RFOB, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, the ISP SupportNation said the website was being taken offline after Facebook complained that the site was involved in “phishing.”
Phishing is when cybercriminals try and trick unsuspecting individuals into clicking on malicious links or disclosing personal information for the purpose of profiting from those actions. It’s unclear what evidence Facebook presented to support its claim that RFOB was operating a phishing website.
Typically, ISPs have a dispute resolution process in place that allows the website operator to challenge the allegations. This process can normally take months and ultimately result in a court order being obtained to take a site offline. In this case, there was no warning given.
SupportNation is owned by Endurance International, a large U.S. company that owns multiple ISPs. Neither SupportNation nor Endurance International responded to requests for comment.
Facebook had previously forced another website the group set up — realfacebookoversight.com — offline over alleged copyright infringement.
Facebook denied that it was responsible for the website being taken offline. “This website was automatically flagged by a vendor because it contained the word “facebook” in the domain and action was taken without consulting with us,” VICE News reports.
But, an email from the ISP, SupportNation, sent to the Real Facebook Oversight Board and viewed by VICE News, links to a message from the original complainant sent in the early hours of Friday morning after the website was taken offline.
The message tells SupportNation that “notices of trademark abuse/trademark infringement were sent out in error.” The message comes from what appears to be a Facebook email address.
Facebook said that while normally the ISP would confirm requests like this with Facebook first but “in this instance that did not happen." A spokesperson added that the message to SupportNation was sent by “a generic email address used by the vendor.”
John Taylor, a spokesperson for Facebook’s actual Oversight Board told VICE News that the takedown wasn’t something it was “aware of or had any involvement in.” Taylor added that the group doesn’t “think this is a constructive approach. We continue to welcome these efforts and contributions to the debate.”
On Wednesday night, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone responded to Cadwalladr’s post, saying: “Your fake thing that accuses us of fake things was caught in our thing to prevent fake things.”
Stone did not immediately respond to requests for comment to clarify what he meant by “fake things” in these instances.
“The most extraordinary thing about this whole affair is how it's exposed the total Trumpification of Facebook's corporate comms,” Cadwalladr told VICE News. “There is a brazen shamelessness at work here. It's not just that a company that has used 'free speech' as a protective cloak would go after our ISP and drive us off the internet but that its official spokesman responds to such criticism by attacking and trolling journalists.”
Cadwalladr, a journalist who had helped expose the Cambridge Analytica scandal, called the decision “madness” and said that she had written to Facebook’s chief legal officer for an explanation.
She said that the takedown showed “a pattern of behavior” by Facebook to undermine the group.
Last month, after the group announced its formation, Facebook's director of governance and global affairs ,Brent Harris, contacted three people involved in funding RFOB to tell them that they were undermining the company's own effort and playing into the hands of conservative critics of its planned board.