Trade Proposal TiSA Could Let Facebook Censor Users

Andrew Orr In the News

A secret trade deal called TiSA could enable Facebook to start censoring users by removing certain content. The social network giant would even have legal immunity.

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What Is TiSA?

German digital rights blog Netzpolitik leaked the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). It’s a free trade agreement between 23 entities, including the European Union and the United States. The leaks include certain dangers to the internet, like Annexes about Electronic Commerce [PDF] and Telecommunications Services [PDF].

Both annexes will have an adverse impact on internet politics in the EU and will affect data protection, net neutrality, freedom of speech and IT security. It’s up to the EU to decide whether it wants to bow to lobbyists or favor fundamental rights.

Image credit: Pixabay

The public can’t comment on or participate in TiSA negotiations, and the only way to get information on TiSA is through leaks. For lobbyists, it’s a different story. For example, a US lobby group with members like Facebook and IBM invited TiSA negotiators to a reception at Microsoft.

Companies in the business of collecting and selling the personal data of customers (ahem, Google?) would have an interest in preventing strict data protection rules in TiSA. The US market still reels from the Snowden revelations, and Google, in particular, has to contend with Europe’s right to be forgotten.

Facebook’s Role in TiSA

Lately, Facebook has been having issues with censorship and fake news. The company was the focus of outrage after it removed – and eventually replaced – the Napalm Girl photo. TiSA agreements could encourage this as a form of privatized censorship, and give internet companies more power to fight legal challenges.

Joe McNamee, Executive Director of the European digital rights group EDRi, says:

“Creating a power to undermine our free speech with no accountability is reckless and contrary to literally all relevant provisions of international law.”

Furthermore, TiSA would let companies refuse to share source code with government regulators, even if the code supports critical infrastructure like a nuclear power plant. This would help Facebook protect its algorithms if a government agency stepped in to examine the company’s role in fake news.

According to the New York Times, Facebook is even working to build a censorship tool so it can re-enter the Chinese market. The company is secretly creating software that can remove posts from a person’s news feed in some geographic regions.  Anonymous sources within Facebook even say that Mark Zuckerberg supports and defends this move.

Image credit: Pixabay

This isn’t new territory for the company. Other countries it censors includes Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. Between July 2015 and December 2015, Facebook blocked about 55,000 pieces of content in 20 countries.

It seems that Facebook won’t censor posts itself, but it will offer the tool to a third-party, most likely a Chinese company. As users share posts, it will monitor popular stories and topics, and the third-party will have control over whether these stories show up in news feeds.

Right now, the censorship tool is an experimental prototype that might not even see use. So far there are no signs that Facebook shared it with China or other countries. A spokeswoman for Facebook said in a statement:

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country.”

Will the country be able to provide the next billion users for the social network? Only time will tell.

The Future of TiSA

The future of TiSA is uncertain. We don’t know how much these leaks will affect the agreement. The original plan was to have conclude the negotiations in December, but this probably won’t happen. One reason is President-elect Donald Trump. US negotiators don’t know Trump’s stance on TiSA.

Another delay is because the EU doesn’t have a formal position yet on data protection. Member states disagree on the details, and if the EU follows the lead of the United States, it will diminish its credibility. The accomplishments of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation [PDF] will be useless as well.

Wikileaks has not only provided leaks, but it offers analysis on TiSA:

“[TiSA] would heighten risks of financial instability and handcuff governments’ ability to respond to a domestic or global financial crisis at a time when everyone (except the finance industry and its political allies) agree that we need more financial regulation, not less.”