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.