Well, I guess it’s time to complete the circle. Last week, we were warning that the rush to demonize Facebook for allowing “fake news” to be distributed and shared via its platform would lead to calls to suppress and censor certain view points. And then, this week came the news that China is strategically and opportunistically using the hubbub over “fake news” to push for greater censorship of the internet — claiming it’s necessary to stop fake news and keep people “better” informed (rather than the opposite).
And to top all of that off, comes a story from the NY Times about how Facebook has been working on a tool to allow the Chinese government to censor stories on Facebook as a condition of entering the market. It’s no secret that Facebook has been trying for a really long time to figure out a way to get into China. There are over a billion potential users there that Facebook really wants on its platform. And that’s not a bad thing. But, of course, China has a heavily censored internet. And while Facebook has been mostly blocked in China, there have already been reports from last year of stories being suppressed to appease the Chinese government.
And now comes “the tool.”
The social network has 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.
Facebook has restricted content in other countries before, such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, in keeping with the typical practice of American internet companies that generally comply with government requests to block certain content after it is posted. Facebook blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries between July 2015 and December 2015, for example. But the new feature takes that a step further by preventing content from appearing in feeds in China in the first place.
Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.
To be clear, the story notes that while this software has been developed, it’s not yet in use, and may never be in use. It’s there as a sort of “break glass, in case it’s needed” offering. And, not surprisingly, it’s also quite controversial within the company:
Over the summer, several Facebook employees who were working on the suppression tool left the company, the current and former employees said. Internally, so many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook’s weekly Friday afternoon question-and-answer sessions.
Mr. Zuckerberg was at the event and answered a question from the audience about the tool. He told the gathering that Facebook’s China plans were nascent. But he also struck a pragmatic tone about the future, according to employees who attended the session.
“It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to employees.
In many ways, this is similar to the struggle that Google faced with China as well, concerning whether or not to locate operations there, and how to deal with demands for both censorship and surveillance from the Chinese government. And, in both cases, there is a reasonable argument for providing some tools to connect the Chinese to the rest of the world. But there’s also a quite reasonable fear of what a slippery slope this is and where it’s likely to end up.
But the timing of this story coming out seems particularly ridiculous. Just as Facebook has quite reasonably pushed back on the calls from people in the US to censor the newsfeed over “fake news,” for it to come out that it has a working tool to censor “real news” seems… kind of ridiculous. And, I’ve seen some people now pointing to this NY Times article as evidence that Facebook could block fake news if it wanted to. But that’s silly and misguided. It’s also implicitly arguing that Chinese-style censorship is the proper approach for the US. That’s not a good idea.