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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

India Wants Facebook to Prescreen User Content

Posted By on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 10:45 AM

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Sometimes it's hard to refrain from going libertarian. Okay, not really, but whenever governments try to pass or enforce absolutely clueless, sledgehammer-blunt laws governing the Internet, it's a challenge not to simply give up hope that enough politicians will ever understand the basic concepts of online communications well enough to govern effectively -- or even sanely.

This week, the New York Times reported that India, the world's biggest democracy, has asked Internet companies to "prescreen user content" generated from within India on sites like Facebook "to remove disparaging, inflammatory, or defamatory content before it goes online."

Sure. No problem, India. Recently, Kipil Sabal, India's top telecommunications regulator, hauled a bunch of Internet executives, including one from Facebook, into his office to show them a Facebook page that disparaged Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party. "This is unacceptable," he told them.

And here's the really fun part: In a followup meeting, Sabal told the execs "that he expected them to use human beings to screen content, not technology," according to the Times.

Sure. No problem, Kipil. Facebook claims 25 million users in India. Google says it reaches 100 million people there.

If this were a case of one bureaucrat being an idiot, it wouldn't matter much. But the Indian government has developed a pattern in recent years of displaying woeful ignorance about tech issues, and a woeful disregard for basic civil liberties. Last year, it threatened to ban the use of BlackBerrys unless Research in Motion allowed it access to user data, including private messages. It backed off a bit after RIM capitulated a bit.

And this latest demand for pre-filtering "objectionable" content comes after demands earlier this year that Internet companies remove such content after it's been published -- itself an impossible task in the absence of someone ordering firms like Google to remove particular posts for particular reasons, like that it's illegal. That wasn't crazy enough for Sabal, apparently, so now companies are being asked to read everything their millions and millions of users post before it's published.

Of course, India is hardly alone, even among countries that call themselves democracies. Our own Congress is debating proposed laws aimed at fighting copyright infringement that would put the onus of enforcement on companies, like Google, that have nothing to do with infringing anything.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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Dan Mitchell


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