The Delhi High Court is taking up Kapil Sibal’s mission to rid the internet of “offensive and objectionable” by bringing 21 companies, including Facebook and Google, up on charges and threatening to censor the web if a way to pre-moderate content cannot be found.
But, as I discussed in December, pre-screening or filtering content before it is posted is impossible for big sites like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter: There is simply too much content to check and no mechanism for doing so. This isn’t about a few companies being reluctant to change the way they work, it’s about the basic fact that users upload more content than it is possible to check. YouTube users alone upload 48 hours’ worth of content every minute. You may as well ask them to count every grain of sand in the Sahara.
The Delhi High Court is bullish in its determination to do something, anything, about the problem saying:
“You must have a stringent check. Otherwise, like in China, we may pass orders banning all such websites.”
What we have here is a classic example of an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. Google, Facebook and the other companies currently standing accused cannot actually pre-filter content, but the Indian Government and High Court are adamant that either such filtering is implemented or there will be censorship.
But getting in between users and their Facebook is not a good idea. India is not analogous to China, where internet censorship has been going on for years and homegrown companies such as Weibo take the place of American-run companies like Facebook. In China, state censorship is coupled with a high degree of self-censorship and cooperation from domestic internet companies.
Indians already have Facebook profiles, they are already organising their social lives through Facebook, using it with as much joy and abandon as their counterparts in the West. When a site becomes such an integral part of someone’s life, they won’t give up access to it easily. If India censors Facebook, it will firstly see a huge backlash from users and if it persists, it will find that users can be a devious bunch.
Regional restrictions on content, such as the fact that users outside of the US cannot watch the same TV content on the Comedy Channel or services like Hulu as their American friends, are often based on IP address. The website compares the visitor’s IP address with a list of those it allows, in this case American ones, and if your IP address is wrong you are denied access.
This has created a market for publicly available VPNs, or virtual private networks. For this particular use, the important part of a VPN is that it can give you an American IP address, even when you are outside of the country. This fools the region check and lets you watch all the TV you’d like.
But, whilst courts will quite happily try to ban anything, banning VPNs might prove problematic given their widespread use by business to provide secure access to internal servers by employees. If a ban on Facebook for Indians was based on blocking Indian IP addresses from accessing Facebook, the Indian High Court would have to ban VPNs too. That might not go down too well with businesses.
The Government could, of course, force ISPs to put a DNS block on Facebook’s domain name. That would mean that when you typed Facebook.com in to your browser, your ISP would refuse to serve the requested Facebook page. Instead, you would mostly likely be met with a page telling you that you had just been naughty and had attempted to access a blocked site.
Users can bypass a DNS block simply by using a different DNS server, one located outside of Indian jurisdiction. There are plenty of DNS servers around, and there’s no doubt that Indian developers would rapidly write plug-ins for popular browsers to automate the process of locating a different DNS server.
Despite how easy China makes it look, regionally blocking big websites actually difficult to do well – the Great Firewall of China is known to have some significant holes in it. There are always workarounds and Facebook users have an incentive to find and use them because they are already emotionally attached to their profile and network of friends.
So, Justice Suresh Kait, just how far are you willing to go with your threats to censor the Indian internet? Because despite the way it looks, the internet does not work on magic. You cannot wave a hand and simply remove Facebook or YouTube from the web and thus people’s lives. The internet is much more like a living organism that treats censorship as an infection that it must fight off. And it is surprisingly adept at doing so.
May 4, 2015