FB’s response to Sibal decoded: Get a court order first

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By Charman-Anderson /  06 Dec 2011 , 20:19

Communications minister Kapil Sibal is flogging a dead horse with his demands that social media sites prescreen user generated content before it is posted live. His frustration at the response from Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook and Google in yesterday’s meeting was almost palpable in the interview he gave IBNLive.

“They came on the fifth of December and pretty much said we can’t do anything.”

At a press conference, he said:

“Even after three months, the companies failed to come up with a solution and literally raised their hands expressing inability to do anything about it. They cited that they operate under US community standard. But the US Supreme Court once ruled that community standard differed even within the United States.”

But the internet foursome are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sibal clearly doesn’t understand how web technology works, because if he did, he would know that asking companies to completely change how their websites function is, by itself, unrealistic.

So what can the internet sites do? Well those companies who were at yesterday’s meeting seem to be mostly keeping quiet for now. One unnamed representative of an unnamed social networking site told The Hindu:

“We have told the government that we will cooperate with the government in penalising those found guilty of uploading objectionable content … we have urged them to prosecute such elements under relevant Acts by filing cases against them.”

Let’s translate that into plain English: The social media site will take action when the Indian government has taken its case against an individual through the courts and prosecuted them under whichever law they have broken.

In plain English: We won’t do a thing without a court order.

That’s right, that’s how it should be. If the government or the authorities have a problem with a particular piece of content, then they need to go through the courts in order to require, by law, the host to take it down. Of course, they could save themselves a lot of money, time and effort by simply clicking ‘report abuse’ a few times and explaining the problem.

Facebook, however, did make a statement:

We want Facebook to be a place where people can discuss things freely, while respecting the rights and feelings of others, which is why we already have policies and on-site features in place that enable people to report abusive content. We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service. We recognise the government’s interest in minimizing the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue.

On the surface, it seems that Facebook is almost agreeing with Sibal, but read it more carefully and you’ll see a similar theme to the anonymous comment above. Facebook says that it will continue to act on material that violates its terms, but it doesn’t say that it’s going to go looking for it. In fact, they as good as say that they’ll carry on talking, but they’re not going to take any actions just yet.

In plain English: We think we’ll just wait and see what happens.

Almost all social media sites have post-publication moderation, i.e. there’s a ‘report abuse’ button which offended users can click. If enough reports come in, a moderator will look at the content to see if it does indeed contravene the site’s terms and conditions. If it does, it gets taken down, and if it doesn’t then, well, it stays there and the offended have to learn to deal with it.

To move to pre-moderation, or prescreening, would require a complete reworking of the site’s functionality. Users would upload content which would then have to go into a workflow system and wait to be seen by a moderator who would then be responsible for deciding whether or not the content was acceptable. If it was, it would be posted but if not, then it would be removed.

To switch from post-moderation to pre-moderation is not a simple thing. It’s not a simple case of flicking a switch and bingo, you can pre-screen. I would guess that for all major social sites it would require a big rewrite of the code that makes the site tick. No company is going to embark on such a massive piece of work willingly.

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