EU trade unions take stand against Facebook attempts to suppress ‘Unionise’ term

Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. [EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS]

Facebook has been accused of breaching a series of internationally-recognised workers’ rights, following the news that in the trialing of new features for its ‘Facebook Workplace’ software it has attempted to blacklist terminology associated with employee unionisation.

On Friday morning (12 June), The Intercept revealed that Facebook Workplace, a chat-platform similar to Slack used for communicating between colleagues, had been piloting tools allowing Facebook administrators to ‘control content’ communicated between colleagues, including the censorship of certain words, such as the term ‘unionise.’

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) wrote to Marisa Jimenez Martin, director of public policy and deputy head of EU affairs at Facebook on Friday and hit out at the allegations that the US tech giants would want to suppress terminology association with unionisation in the workplace.

“ETUC firmly opposes these practices and would like to remind Facebook that union-busting and other discriminatory activities towards trade unions, their representatives and workers is in Europe absolutely prohibited by international and European human rights standards European member states have committed themselves to,” stated the letter, seen by EURACTIV.

The group, which comprises 90 national trade union confederations in 38 European countries, urged Facebook “to stop such practices immediately and give an assurance to the ETUC that the policy direction of Facebook will in future promote the fundamental human right to be able to belong and be active in your union without fear of reprisals.”  

Facebook struck a conciliatory tone after what appears to have been a faux pas on their behalf.

“While these kinds of content moderation tools are useful for companies, this example was poorly chosen and should never have been used,” a Facebook spokesperson told EURACTIV.

“The feature was only in early development and we’ve pulled any plans to roll it out while we think through next steps.”

Prior to Facebook’s public admission of the blunder, several employees from the company took to social media to criticise the actions of the company in explicitly proposing that terms such as ‘unionise’ could be blocked from online chats between members of staff.

The idea of Facebook censoring speech is also likely to have come as a surprise, following the company’s decision to leave a series of posts from US President Donald Trump online, after social media rival Twitter had placed labels on some of Trump’s tweets – warning that they could be incendiary and should be fact-checked.

Despite Facebook’s commitment to erring on the side of free speech in the wider debate on regulating online content, company chief Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan have criticised recent comments made President Trump in a leaked email to associates of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“We are deeply shaken and disgusted by President Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric at a time when our nation so desperately needs unity,” Zuckerberg and Chan wrote, in the email seen by CNN.

“This is an extraordinarily painful inflection point in our nation’s story, particularly for the Black community and our Black colleagues, who have lived with the impacts of systemic racism for generations.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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