Facebook has agreed to block sensitive content relating to the Newtown school attack, company officials and members of Connecticut's congressional delegation said Monday.
"It's not anyone's responsibility to try to speak for the families other than the families," said Sen. Chris Murphy, speaking about a wide range of tribute pages created on the popular Internet site after the Newtown massacre, some of which have upset family members of victims and survivors.
Murphy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty wrote Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg Monday asking the company to address concerns raised about so-called tribute pages created in the name of Sandy Hook Elementary School victims. Facebook, however, said Monday that it already has been reviewing the situation and talking with Attorney General George Jepsen.
Shortly after 20 children and six women were killed on Dec. 14, Facebook "set up a special process for them where they have a direct line to someone at Facebook," company spokeswoman Jodi Seth said. "That is unique for Newtown."
"Every piece of content that has been escalated to us through the families and foundations has been reviewed, every email has been responded to, and action is taken in line with our terms of service," said Seth, who explained that Facebook has been in contact almost daily with Tom Bittman, chairman of Sandy Hook Promise, a local group formed in response to the shootings.
Seth said Facebook has not changed any of its policies, but has added additional staff and special channels so that Newtown concerns are addressed adequately and efficiently.
"Creating a Facebook page can often be an important way for a community to memorialize and grieve the loss of a loved one," she said. Seth said the letter from Murphy, Blumenthal and Esty was a surprise.
"They also have not given us specific examples of what has fallen through the cracks, so I think that's a question we would love for them to point out," said Seth. "For the past few months, our rapid response team has acted swiftly to remove inappropriate materials flagged by the foundation and the families."
Many of the Newtown tribute pages were created by relatives of the victims or survivors themselves, but others have been created by people with no connection to the tragedy. Slain teacher Victoria Soto has dozens in her name, and the multitude of pages has raised an array of concerns, ranging from solicitation of donations to bullying and harassment. Murphy said the best approach, given the horrific nature of the tragedy, would be to take down all pages not run by family members.
Jepsen spoke with Facebook representatives over the weekend after seeing media reports that families were upset with some of the content on the site.
"They've had an aggressive policy very early on," said Jepsen. "Soon after the shootings they were in contact with my office to make sure we were all on the same page."
He said the tribute pages were difficult, especially because many of them were well-intentioned, but which attracted offensive comments.
"You have to balance the interests of the victims' families with the kind of precedent you're setting," said Jepsen, warning of a world in which anyone offended could demand the company take down a page.
"I don't see the harm in Facebook applying a very rigorous standard when it comes to pages connected to the Newtown families," Murphy said. "Often [the pages] end up giving the impression that the family is behind the page, and they provide a venue for some pretty hateful posts."
"My argument is Facebook needs to do more than just answer the concerns of these families," Murphy said. "I don't think there's any reason Facebook shouldn't be proactive in protecting these families."
In the letter, Blumenthal, Murphy and Esty ask for the removal of Facebook pages and posts "being used to harass or to exploit their loss" in addition to those that were soliciting donations.
"If Facebook enforces those terms of service or its own rules vigorously or aggressively it would take down photos of children without permission from parents, it would take down solicitations for funds that are unauthorized, it would take down posts that depict themselves as official tributes when they are in fact without any authority from loved ones or parents," Blumenthal said.
"We've seen public reports and there have been private conversations with families that have indicated that Facebook could be doing better and doing more to protect against invasions of privacy ... harassing and intimidating posts or exploitive posts," Blumenthal said.
"We're going to be monitoring closely what they're doing and be in touch with the families."
One Facebook user created a page called "Kaitlin Roig is a hero." It also attracted posts suggesting the school shooting was a hoax and that Roig was an actor.
"To whomever started this page...thank you," Roig posted on the page in early January. "The positive messages are AMAZING. Unfortunately coming on for the first time, I can't believe that anyone human would post such unkind words. Please, please cancel this page."
As of Monday evening, that page had not been taken down.
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