Censorship Inputs: Filtering Content and Unintended Consequences

January 29, 2012

I find “inputs” annoying. An “input” is advice, a comment delivered in parental mode, or suggestions which are more about the person making the suggestion than the person receiving the suggestion. Twitter is getting “inputs” about the alleged filtering of tweets in certain countries. (Keep in mind that search engines filter on a routine basis.)

No tweets needed in this woodcut of the 1844 Nativist riot in Philadelphia. Social media just accelerates information flow. A happy quack to Wikipedia.

A good example is “Letter to Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey Urging Him Not to Cooperate with Censors.” The idea is a simple one—When asked to filter content, Twitter should ignore the request. But what happens when the request is made by a governmental entity? Does Twitter ignore that governmental request. This type of blow off sounds great sitting in a college dorm at 3 am talking about what is right and wrong. The problem is that it ignores three salient facts top most in the minds of governmental executives around the world:

  1. Social media is the mechanism for starting and sustaining revolt. Even the Googler involved in Egypt’s transformation pointed the finger at Facebook. Facebook’s executives were half a world away and probably not thinking about the system as a mechanism for revolt.
  2. Governments are behind the curve when it comes to technology. As a result, governments and officials with power want to stop the technology in its tracks. The idea is that if a service is a problem, one can make the problem go away. That’s why India, China, and other outfits want to clamp down hard on certain content channels or at least be able to pry them open and take action if warranted.
  3. The companies want to keep earning money and keep their executives out of jail or out of harm’s way. Most of folks providing inputs don’t know what could and may happen to a frisky executive who ignores a request from a nation state. In case you don’t know, the actions range from jail time, death, harassment, and multiple actions across financial and personal spheres of behavior. This is hard ball, kids, and you need to know that nation states act lawfully within their borders and have the same extra-nation state options that the US, England, Israel, and other countries do.

Here’s an example of the sort of input which can lead to some interesting situations:

We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We call on you to be transparent about the way you propose to carry out this censorship. Posting the removal requests you receive from governments on the Chilling Effects website will not suffice to offset the harm done by denying access to content. Twitter has said that, if it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity,” it may respond by withholding access to certain content in a particular country, while notifying the content’s author.

I heard that one nation state turned force on a crowd of protestors. See “Chinese Troops Seal Off Tibetan Protest Region.” Quite a spicy filter in my opinion. This is the real world and the social media which is touted as replacing search as the next big thing is fostering some interesting unintended consequences; namely, forcing governments to embrace tougher behaviors. I generally worked for governments and law enforcement. As a result, I am making an observation based on experience. There are two types of force: hard and soft. Filtering with software is about as soft as force gets. The hard force, on the other hand, is not something most readers of this blog want to experience as a receiver of input with intent.

Remember: I am okay with a person making inputs. I am not okay with the assumption that a commercial enterprise is going to be able to do the college dorm version of the “right thing.” Missing a class is one thing. Getting arrested, killed, or becoming the focus of a disinformation attack is another.

Finding is one thing. Inciting is quite another. Lowest common denominator, consumerization, commoditization—describe it as you will. There are interactions in the real world that don’t exist in a philosophical discussion among soon to be unemployable students.

Stephen E Arnold, January 29, 2012

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One Response to “Censorship Inputs: Filtering Content and Unintended Consequences”

  1. Incentive based web filtering | on February 5th, 2012 11:17 am

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