Facebook and Corporate Censorship


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In 1922, Eric Blair went to Burma to take up an assignment with the Indian Imperial police. Burma at the time was part of the British raj, a colony of England and a place where British Indian law applied.

As a policeman he was a target. He learned Burmese and had his hand tattooed as protection against bullets. In Southeast Asia tattoos are widely believed to bestow magical protection; there are tattoos which will grant power over men and others to insure luck or good fortune.

For five years Blair was an instrument of colonial power. Eventually he resigned his commission and returned to England.

Given his later career, it is not surprising that these formative years as an instrument of the state are forgotten. Blair eventually became a singular voice protesting totalitarianism and government overreaching of all kinds.

Censorship was a particular evil. "He who controls the past controls the present," he wrote, and "he who controls the present controls the future."

Facebook is a worldwide phenomena. While its roots are humble it is already a worldwide institution. In the 1970's, universities printed directories of incoming freshmen; a book of faces, so to speak.  The electronic version became a digital way to make classmate connections and was used much in the same way that the static paper version was used. But with added features, Facebook became something else entirely.

Today, Facebook is increasingly used for business. In some countries it is accurate to say that Facebook is the Internet. No site competes in terms of person-to-person interaction. Facebook is becoming a corporate business destination.

Is it too difficult to believe that one day you will do your banking through Facebook? Or pay traffic fines? Or even vote?

Fair, Isaac is the public company which trolls publicly and not so publicly available information to determine whether you are a credit risk. They compile this information, assign it numeric values and produce a number called a FICO score. While Fair, Issac says that they do not grant credit, this is disingenuous: your access to credit, and perhaps even your participation in the economy at all depends wholly on your credit score.

Increasingly, Facebook is becoming a source for Fair, Isaac. Using the "birds of a feather" theory, Fair, Isaac calculates that having uncreditworthy friends means that you are uncreditworthy yourself.

This is troublesome enough, but its roots as a dating site lead to a corporate culture which favors censorship. Eric Blair eventually took to writing novels. In one of his novels, a character named Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, not just censoring articles but deleting references in past articles to people who were now out of favor.

Art imitates life: after falling out of favor with Stalin, Leon Trotsky was erased from Soviet history and pictures of him were manipulated to delete his image.

A business on Facebook can easily delete the comments of critics by blocking them. The deletions are immediate and comprehensive: the offending comments will disappear from the site. There will be no record that your restaurant was raided by the health inspector. Tomorrow's business will be profitable because you were able to delete an inconvenient truth.

As Facebook grows, blocked user comments will be tomorrow's version of Soviet photographic manipulation. Comprehensive censorship is much better than a court judgment. An Arab proverb says, "if no one sees it, it did not happen."

Eric Blair learned about these things while working as a policeman in Burma; experiences that he would put to good use when, under the pen name of George Orwell, he wrote 1984.

2018 Update: Two years after I wrote this, two predictions have come true: censorship on Facebook is getting worse and discussion of this censorship has hit the mainstream.

Second, banks use social media as part of their "know your customer" (KYC) security obligations. Bank of America has been closing accounts where the information culled from social media does not match what they have on file and where the account holder fails to move quickly enough to correct the errors.

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