Social Media: Can They Censor Us?

Yesterday, Eran Wickramaratne, Sanjana Hattotuwa (Groundviews) and Malinda Seniviratne (Daily Nation) got together for a forum on social media and the whole question on censorship.

Now, far be it from me to talk about that, because by a rather unlucky combination of work and delayed meetings, I completely missed out on that thing. Pity – I was really looking forward to it. But an acquaintance and I once had a conversation along the following lines:

“Can they (the government) actually censor social media?” 

Because we’d both met government workers who seem to think they could, actually, control what people were saying on Facebook or Twitter – the general idea seems to be “if China can do it, why not us?”

Let’s look at this from a techie perspective. Take Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Every status, tweet or photo that we put up is data. This data is held by American companies on servers which are usually firmly planted in American soil (take Facebook, which has data centers in Oregon, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and so on).

So once that data’s in there, it’s..there. I seriously doubt any US company or court is going to honor a request from a third-world country to modify data and breach their own agreements with their userbase. If you believe posts like these, Facebook already does a certain amount of censorship. (Instagram also did it, famously, for RIhanna and her nudes). So will the social networks bend over? For the NSA – maybe, but for Sri Lanka? Perhaps not.

Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.
Getting civilians to clear the road for you is easier than getting Facebook to divulge user data. Forget write access.

So, right: it’s a question of getting to the data before it reaches foreign soil. Now, as I’ve explained on before, Sri Lanka is connected to the rest of the world by a few undersea cables. Tap these cables and, technically, you’d be tapping into all of Sri Lanka’s traffic – Facebook, porn site requests, our daily email flow, you name it. You’d be sitting there like a fat, bloated dataspider, drinking in all the yummy stuff.

Except somehow, I don’t think it’s feasible to monitor all that data. It’s possible to isolate traffic going to, say, the Facebook servers and monitor that. It’s been done.  However, not only would you need massive infrastructure to pull this off, you’d also need to break into the encryption schemes used by these services. It’s mathematically doable. You’re talking massive firewalls in place, monitoring for phrases and symbols and blocking data flow, which is similar to what China seems to be doing.

Is this practically possible? Yes. Feasible, for Sri Lanka? No. Given how half-assedly our government handles most social media accounts, I doubt there’s enough technical expertise to pull it off. The least intensive solution would be to block sites like Facebook. Everybody did it – Bangladesh, Egypt, China, Iran – 

But hello, people, proxies, which allow you to access any site you need: honestly, it’s like fighting a hydra – the moment you cut off one head, another sprouts back. I don’t think Sri Lanka can fight this particular battle. SLT’s blocks, in any case, don’t seem to be very effective – ColomboTelegraph, for example is blocked at the DNS level. Nothing setting your DNS server to Google Public DNS won’t fix. The point is, people will always find a way. We’re not at a level where we can support our own social network, like China.

The total solution would be to pull the plug – total blackout. Unfortunately, whoever’s doing it will need an army, a navy and an air force at their command to quell the inevitable uprising and face the complete collapse of the economy…

Oh, wait.


The thing is, you can’t seriously control what people post on Facebook or Twitter – unless you ARE Facebook or Twitter or something that can directly impact how they work (for example, if you were a shotgun pointed at Mark Zuckerberg’s head, I think you’d stand a good chance).  Unless you actually pull the plug, people will keep finding a way.

hail hydra
Hail Hydra.

There is one thing the government can do: suggest what to write and what not to. Unfortunately, they have few ways of enforcing said suggestions short of the proverbial White Van.

Are we untouchable, then? No. Social media actually opens up a more effective method of censorship: exploiting he human element.

It’s no secret that almost all of our data is up on social media. Take the average Sri Lankan with a smartphone, who uses Facebook. Not only do I know what they look like from almost every angle (profile photos), I also know what they’re thinking and feeling (statuses), who they’re interacting with, where they are / were (check-ins). I know what they like.   know what they hate. I know who they’re dating.  I know where they learned and what. I can access more data about a person in a few keystrokes  from my home than entire government agencies could ten years ago.


And if Foursquare’s involved, a day or two of monitoring and you can pretty much nail someone’s daily route down to a T. If Instagram’s involved, you know what they’re seeing. You can intelligently guess where that selfie was taken.  Why would you even bother trying to break into US servers or, all the gods help us, trying to filter throuogh terabytes of data every second? Heck, look at Facebook Graph search, a service that can find people in your hometown who like bicycling. That’s the level of search / stalking you can do on a person now. You don’t need a datacenter. You don’t need men in black suits. All you need is a couple of guys with laptops.

Social Media’s not just a platform for sharing opinions – it’s become an inverse Big Brother of sorts, a sort of fucked-up espionage system where everyone voluntarily uploads their data. No longer do governments have to spend time and resources monitoring its populace: all they need to do is hire a guy to check Facebook. Intensively.

People tend to forget that hiding behind an online alias is not easy when you’ve spent years turning that alias into a proper digital extension of yourself.

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