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UN human rights expert says Facebook’s ‘terrorism’ definition is too broad

GENEVA (3 September 2018) – An independent expert appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council has written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to express concerns about the company’s overly broad definition of terrorism and the apparent lack of a comprehensive human rights-based approach to the policies governing access to and use of its platform.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, said Facebook’s definition equates all non-state groups that use violence in pursuit of any goals or ends to terrorist entities. 

“The use of overly broad and imprecise definitions as the basis for regulating access to and the use of Facebook’s platform may lead to discriminatory implementation, over-censoring and arbitrary denial of access to and use of Facebook’s services,” said Ní Aoláin.

Facebook defines terrorist entities as: “Any non-governmental organization that engages in premeditated acts of violence against persons or property to intimidate a civilian population, government, or international organization in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim.” Company policy prohibits terrorists from using Facebook’s services, and it uses detection technology and employs an ever-growing team of moderators assisted by a counter-terrorism team of 200 people to find and remove content from its platform. 

“The use of such a sweeping definition is particularly worrying in light of a number of governments seeking to stigmatize diverse forms of dissent and opposition – whether peaceful or violent – as terrorism,” said Ní Aoláin. 

“The definition is further at odds with international humanitarian law as it qualifies all non-state armed groups party to a non-international armed conflict as terrorists, even if these groups comply with international humanitarian law.”   

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern at the lack of clarity about the methods by which Facebook determines when a person belongs to a particular group and whether the respective group or person are given the opportunity to meaningfully challenge such determination. The absence of any independent processes of review, oversight and monitoring of Facebook’s actions is also highly problematic, she added.    

Ní Aoláin called on Facebook, as well as any other companies facing similar challenges, to adopt the model definitions of terrorism and incitement to terrorism developed by the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (A/HRC/16/51, Practices 7 and 8). 

She said removal and blocking efforts should be focused on content of genuinely terrorist nature and/or content restricted in line with Articles 19(3) and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the standards spelled out in the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (A/HRC/22/17/Add.4). 

The Special Rapporteur welcomes Facebook’ openness to a dialogue with her mandate with a view to promoting greater compliance with these standards. She also recommends that other companies hosting third-party content be guided by the recommendations issued by and consider entering into a continued dialogue with her mandate and other relevant United Nations human rights mechanisms. 


Ms Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin (Ireland), the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, took up her functions on 1 August 2017. She is a University Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota; holder of the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society; and faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is concurrently a Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is co-founder and associate director of the Institute.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

For more information and media requests please contact Mr. Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748 / sazizov@ohchr.org) or write to srct@ohchr.org 

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts: 

Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org)   

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rightshttp://www.standup4humanrights.org