The New York Times reported this week that Facebook has ‘quitely developed’ a censorship tool, specifically for the Chinese government to suppress content on their platform. The piece writes:
“the social network quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added” – New York Times
The report goes on to say, that Facebook intends to grant that capability to a 3rd-party, who will “have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds“.
In short, they’re creating a censorship on demand for China, in exchange for access to the worlds largest market.
Censorship in an encrypted world
While Facebook have neither confirmed nor denied this, this will give China special priviledge to the platform, one that no other nation currently has. Today, most governments face an all-or-nothing approach to censorship on encrypted sites like Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. China famously censor of all Wikipedia on days leading up to the anniversary Tianamen square massacre, simply because they have no ability to censor specific pages.
If I were browsing for chicken curry recipes on Wikipedia, while you were researching political dissent on the same site, our traffic would look identical to anyone ‘sniffing’ along the line. These ‘in transit’ censorship attempts are failing, and for Governments like China, a ‘block the whole damn thing’ approach is the only alternative.
This new tool however, will grant them granular control, to block specific posts and news on the social network,because the censorship now will occur at source, rather than in-transit. It is a radical shift in the way censorship will be performed on the internet, not just in China, but across the world.
It’s also worthwhile to note, that other governments have tried these ‘all-or-nothing’ approaches as well, including Brazil who famously blocked all of Whatsapp (also owned by Facebook) for 72 hours, because a Judge was ‘unhappy’ that Whatsapp responded via email and in English. Fortunately for Brazilians, the ban didn’t last that long.
Whatsapp is a private communications tool, and Facebook is a social network–the similarity is that they both use encryption and this is problematic for governments. In the case of Whatsapp, the two ends of the encrypted channel belong to users, and Whatsapp would be unable to provide any content of communications within that channel–even if it wanted to. In the case of Facebook, since one end belongs to the company–it is able to provide some control.
But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Facebook and censorship in China–but first let’s take a look at Facebook.
Is Facebook a Media Company?
To understand the entire issue requires us to consider Facebook a media company instead of a social network. After all, the younger generation is getting more and more of its news through social channels like Facebook, than from news sites directly. Facebook is responsible for delivering more media content to end users than any other platform on the planet, and more than just being a ‘dumb-pipe’ Facebook is actually making decisions as to what content it should serve you.
Facebook is editing its content.
What appears on your Facebook feed is the result of a finely tuned algorithm the company has developed over the years, an algorithm designed to give you relevant post and publications, so that you stay constantly glued to it, and are constantly ready to view revenue generating ads. The algorithm is driven by a profit , and not concerned with the validity or accurateness of the content–the runaway effect of which is to confine you to an echo-chamber of your bias.
Facebook is only interested in giving you the content you want–not the content you deserve! So if you’re a climate-change denying, homeopathy believing, racist bigot, you’re going to get all of those post that validate your position.
Facebook is making editorial decisions on what appears on your feed–shouldn’t it then be responsible for those decisions the same way ‘real’ media companies are responsible for their editorial decisions? If the Wall Street Journal published a defaming article of a Prime Minister of a foreign country, can’t it be held liable for the content it produces, shouldn’t it be sued if the content is false? Or if CNN decide to air a 30 minute section where they discuss the benefits of homeopathy, can you imagine the uproar?
But for all the shit that appears on Facebook, it gets no criticism and no one plans a boycott.
Facebook have constantly refused to accept any responsibility for their editorial algorithm, claiming that their a technology company instead, and the algorithmic editorial decisions made by them are not ‘real’ decisions of content–in fact, Facebook generates no content at all, merely aggregating what’s already on the internet. Surely, it can’t be held responsible for content it never created?
Removing Fake News = Censorship
In the wake of the surprising Trump victory in the 2016 US Presidential elections, many have called on Facebook to take their editorial decisions more seriously, and to include in it the ability to detect and remove ‘fake news’. Facebook understandably aren’t too interested in policing their platform, it drains resources away from other revenue generating initiatives, and it’s a highly manual and costly process.
Any algorithm no matter how sophisticated can be manipulated, just ask Google who constantly change the way their search engines rank websites. There’s an entire industry called Search Engine Optimization (SEO), that’s basically nothing more than ‘gaming’ that algorithm, so that other less important sites get ranked higher on the search results.
But even if Google were prepared to hire an army of internet curators–something China will easily accomplish, there’s a much more difficult question to answer.
Who would you grant the right to decide if news if ‘fake’ or not?
Is there one single entity or person we would all be comfortable with having that kind of power? And why would anyone think that power would best be placed in the hands of a corporation like Facebook or Google?
But imagine if there was such an entity, let’s call them The Trusted Truth Brigade, a loosely affiliated organization that 90% of the population agreed were responsible and truthful enough to be given the power to decide what news was ‘fake’ on Facebook. And to facilitate this, Facebook create a separate tool, that allowed the Trusted Truth Brigade to remove specific fake post on it’s site.
All sounds good?
Well in China, the Trusted Truth Brigade is the government, and that’s exactly what Facebook is doing.
It’s actually a win-win for Facebook, because it gets to publish all of it’s content and revenue generating ads, while being absolved from all responsibility for all the shitty post being published. How could the company not ‘jump’ at that opportunity?
Should other nations be afraid?
The last thing we need to note is that China is a a one-off, not many other nations have the same leverage when it comes to negotiating a deal with Facebook.
Firstly, if Malaysia or the Saudi’s decided they’d want a similar tool, Facebook could just say No. After all, which government of Malaysia would have the audacity to censor Facebook?
Secondly, even if the Governments had significant ‘power’, like the EU or the US, none of those governments are as single minded as China. Even if President Donald Trump wanted such a tool, he would need legislation from Congress to push it through, and if by some miracle, Congress grant him the necessary legal power, Facebook would fight it all the way to the Supreme Court (provided they choose to hear it, and I have no reason to believe they won’t).
The Chinese government would face no such legislative hurdles.
It’s exciting times ahead for Free Speech on the internet, and it’s going to take a while for all the dust to settle on how we as a society decide how we want the internet to behave. We often forget that half of the online population only joined in the last 5 years, it’ll be a while before norms are set.
Until then, the internet is still the wild-west, but for not much longer.