India's Unworkable Plan to Censor Facebook

India's Unworkable Plan to Censor Facebook

As the United States considers its own measures to block illegal websites, India's government is pulling a China and asking Internet companies like Facebook and Google to start screening all user generated content. The censorship measures requested by the Indian government -- "to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online" -- do resemble China's firewall, based on the so far vague details of the plan reported in The New York Times's India Ink blog on Monday morning. However, the companies affected also say it's out of the question.

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India's proposed site-screening sounds rather unworkable. Apparently, it all started six months ago, when India's acting telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal told government officials that disparaging comments on the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi's Facebook page were "unacceptable" and eventually asked executives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo "to set up a proactive prescreening system, with staffers looking for objectionable content and deleting it before it is posted." India Ink's Heather Timmons explains that the companies' representatives "will tell Mr. Sibal at the meeting on Monday that his demand is impossible, given the volume of user-generated content coming from India, and that they cannot be responsible for determining what is and isn't defamatory or disparaging." And the volume must be huge; Facebook alone has 25 million users in India.

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Sibal's request resembles the Great Firewall of China, but the execution is notably different. Internet companies' obeying the Indian government and removing "unacceptable" user generated content opens up the possibility of pretty broad-based censorship, but we don't yet know many details about what the Indian government's proposal would block. Do Indian officials want to block certain bad words or offensive images? That already happens all over the world, including the United States, and falls more in the more justified realm of keeping obscenity off of sites accessible to all ages. Do Indian officials want broader powers, like the ability to stifle any and all criticism? This is starting to sound Tiananmen-inspired. 

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China's Internet-blocking abilities are both vaguely defined and incredibly powerful. Whereas the Indian officials propose that the Internet companies themselves beef up their moderation efforts with more advanced screening tools, albeit with guidance from the government, Chinese officials have carte blanche when it comes to blocking entire websites. China doesn't just screen the types of content that goes up on sites like Facebook; it blocks the site completely. The Indian government's proposal sounds more like a screen than a wall. Let's call it the Mediocre Content Filter of India. (It's not as scary is it?) It seems like the India's proposed screening methods would also depend on the Internet companies -- humans moderators in fact -- to do the blocking.

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This approach is much more permissive than China's internet censorship practices. China has a huge head start when it comes to blocking undesirable content. Because the Chinese government poured the foundation of the country's firewall, officially known as the Golden Shield Project, in the late 1990s, the system is incredibly sophisticated and mostly automatic. It's also pretty aggressive. While it's provided some details in the past about what kinds of content is offending, the Chinese government is basically free to block whatever it wants. Last year alone, over 1.3 million websites shut down in China last year, nearly half of the total number of sites available

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It doesn't sound like India wants to prohibit its citizens from using Facebook; they just don't want the citizens saying bad things about the government on Facebook. Nevertheless, India's pronounced intent to block certain types of content along with pending legislation in the United States that would block sites altogether shows a trend in governments considering more aggressive ways to regulate the internet that, at best, resemble China's famously draconian methods. The proposed screening methods matter to Internet companies because India's huge population is such a huge area for growth. The message of allowing more Internet censorship that countries like India are sending matter to everyone on the web.