Facebook temporarily removed the profile picture of Rebecca Gomperts, the Dutch founder of Women on Waves, an organisation that works to provide women with safe, legal abortions. The image consists of a block of text providing information on how women can self-induce an abortion without the assistance of a doctor. Women on Waves was furious, but media attorney Quinten Kroes said there was little they could do.
Meanwhile Facebook has sent her another message, apologising for the removal, and claiming it was an error. Ms Gomperts was given permission to reinstate the image. She assumed that the service's change of mind was prompted by the flood of protests and publicity it had created.
Describing the contentious picture, Rebecca Gomperts said,
“It’s actually a sticker we designed to provide information on how women can safely induce an abortion using a medicine called Misoprostol. The text is based on information and research from the World Health Organisation. So it is really quite safe.”
The English-language text says that to induce a safe abortion women should buy 12 Misoprostol tablets at a pharmacy. They are advised to say the drugs are intended for ‘their granny who has arthritis.’ When the tablets are taken a few hours apart they will induce labour accompanied by abdominal cramps and vaginal bleeding eventually leading to a miscarriage after about 10 hours. Diarrhoea is the most common side-effect. In case of a high fever and severe pain women are advised to see a doctor, who should be told the patient suffered a miscarriage.
Women on Waves says the removal of the photograph is in violation of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which specifically mentions ‘the right to ... seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media’ – and the European Convention on Human Rights. However, media and privacy lawyer Quinten Kroes says this not entirely true:
“Women on Waves refers to very basic human rights, such as the freedom of expression. These fundamental rights are primarily intended as protection from government interference, which is not what this is about. Facebook has not removed the profile photograph as a result of pressure from any government, but on its own initiative. From that perspective, Facebook could argue its own freedom of expression was at stake here. Facebook cannot be made to spread ideas the company does not support.”
This is not the first time Facebook has removed photographs from profile pages for alleged terms-of-use violations. Earlier, photographs of partially nude people, works of art involving (too much) nudity and of kissing men fell victim to Facebook’s censorship.
“It really worries me that there should be so much censorship on the internet. Regardless of whether it’s Google or Facebook,” says Rebecca Gomperts, “Because when you no longer know what’s going on, you can also no longer discuss it. That’s what we all should protest against.”
US columnist MG Siegler angrily reported that his profile photograph had been removed because it showed him giving the middle finger. Since then, numerous people in the US have expressed their support by posting photographs on their Google+ profiles in which they make a similar gesture.
• Photos: material which Facebook removed from users' pages