How Facebook Decided to Delete the Profile of One San Bernardino Shooter

Technology companies are under pressure to remove violent, terrorist content from their sites. Who should decide what gets removed?

A day after Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook allegedly murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, Facebook removed a profile page of one of the suspects. Malik, posting under a moniker, used the page to pledge her support to ISIS around the time of the shooting. According to The Wall Street Journal, a spokesman for Facebook said the page violated Facebook’s community standards, which among other things, prohibits posts supporting terrorism. The page’s removal highlights the long-running debate regarding online freedom and government surveillance efforts and illustrates the pressure many technology companies are under to monitor and respond to violent content posted on their sites.


President Barak Obama, in his address to the nation Sunday evening, called on Silicon Valley to help in the fight against terrorism. "I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice," Obama said. That position, where technology companies operate in concert with the government, has some folks worried. “When it comes to terrorist content, it’s certainly a tricky position for companies, and one that I don’t envy,” said Jillian York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of international freedom of expression, in an email to The Wall Street Journal. “Still, I worry that giving more power to companies — which are undemocratic by nature — to regulate speech is dangerous.”

Additionally, Reuters reports that the White House will be asking tech companies to restrict the use of social media if it’s used for violent purposes. "That is a deeply concerning line that we believe has to be addressed. There are cases where we believe that individuals should not have access to social media for that purpose," an official speaking on background said.

In a previous article, I spoke to Google’s management of requests from the public to delete links to content from its index. Known as “the right to be forgotten,” Google determines on a case-by-case basis what information gets unlinked. In fact, the Court of Justice of the European Union says specifically that Google must consider “the type of information in question, its sensitivity for the individual’s private life, and the interest of the public in having access to that information. The role the person requesting the deletion plays in public life might also be relevant.”

As I mentioned in that article, what that means is Google has the responsibility for determining if the deletion request is valid and should be honored. If Google resolves that the link-deletion request is not in the best interest of the public’s access to information, it can deny the request. Google is essentially serving as the arbiter for online speech.

These two processes — one in which the government cedes control to a private entity to unlink content from its search engine and one in which the government asks a private entity to remove content that encourages terrorist activity — seem related. In the first example, by ceding the link-removal decision to Google, the Court of Justice of European Union blurs the line between what a court of law should decide and what a private corporation should be allowed to do. While I’m not opposed to being forgotten, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with some group of people at Google making that determination.

I’m equally troubled by the second example as well. We are now asking Twitter, Facebook, and others to identify and remove content that has “violent ends.” It’s not that I want that content to stay up. I don’t. But, relegating that decision to a private company, just like ceding the right-to-be-forgotten process to Google, doesn’t sit exactly right with me.

If we are concerned that a government can abuse online freedoms like speech, then we should be equally worried about arbitrary decisions made by private entities to remove terrorist speech from online social media. To be clear, I am not arguing that the content not be removed. What I am debating is that its removal be a considered proposition and not determined by a private entity. Restricting speech is a serious thing and because we’ve surrendered control over our data and privacy to corporate interests, sometimes we assume their interests and ours are the same.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.