Facebook once more begs to be regulated

Like the data addict it is, social media giant Facebook feels it can’t be trusted to moderate its own habits and thinks state intervention may be the answer.

Reuters reports that Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) would like Facebook to be regulated in a way that’s somewhere in between how we currently regulate media companies, on once hand, and telcos. He did so in the context of people moaning about ‘bad’ content and specifically political misinformation spread over social media.

Zuck clearly thinks treating Facebook as a traditional media organisation is a step too far as it doesn’t produce its own content. But in observing that you would never punish a phone network for the stuff that passes over it, he seems to think there should be some greater degree of accountability imposed on social media companies for the content they host.

So all he’s really saying is that Facebook’s accountability for the stuff it publishes should be somewhere between 1% and 100%. Very helpful. In essence Zuck is resharing the old platform versus publisher debate and saying social media companies are neither and both – i.e. somewhere in between.

But why should Zuck want Facebook to be regulated at all? Isn’t that just inviting the state to poke its nose into his company’s private affairs? The answer is that social media censorship is an impossible task and that Facebook will never be able to please all of the people all of the time. What Zuck wants to do is find the perfect balance for his company between offloading responsibility for censorship decisions and retaining core control.

You have to wonder, however, whether Zuck has been adequately briefed on the nature of telecoms regulation. Does he know, for example, that all kinds of other things get tinkered with, including what they can charge their customers. Facebook may think a little bit of regulation will solve its content moderation problems, but letting that genie out of the lamp could well create a bunch of new ones.

Ofcom appoints safe pair of hands as new boss and gets new internet censorship role

Establishment figure Dame Melanie Dawes has been announced as the new Chief Exec of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom.

She replaces Sharon White, who was also a senior civil servant before being handed the Ofcom gig. Dawes (pictured) is currently Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a position she has held since 2015. Prior to that she was Director General of the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat at the Cabinet Office.

“I am delighted that the Secretary of State has approved Ofcom’s appointment of Dame Melanie Dawes as the next Chief Executive of Ofcom,” said Lord Burns, Ofcom’s Chairman. “The Government’s statement that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online harms is a vote of confidence in Ofcom’s expertise. I know Melanie will do a fantastic job of leading the organisation and maintaining its strengths.

“I look forward to working with her over the months ahead as we prepare for this forthcoming legislation as well as the ongoing tasks of achieving better broadband and mobile coverage and supporting UK broadcasting.”

“I congratulate Dame Melanie Dawes on her appointment as chief executive of Ofcom,” said DCMS Secretary of State Nicky Morgan. “Melanie’s experience leading organisations through change will be vital as the Government today announces it is minded to appoint the organisation as regulator for new online harms laws.”

What’s all this ‘online harms’ stuff they’re all banging on about, I hear you ask. Well the UK government has been having a public consultation on how to protect people from bad stuff on the internet. As a result it has concluded there needs to be some kind of state intervention to make sure those who publish bad stuff are censored, punished and prevented from ever doing so again.

“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve,” said Morgan. There’s just so much to unpack in that. Of course things like child abuse, promoting terrorism, etc should be kept off the internet and proponents of them punished, but that stuff is already illegal, so why do we need extra powers to fight it? Proposing the censorship of ‘harmful’ but otherwise legal content creates so many new problems it’s hard to know where to start.

“There are a number of important questions that remain unanswered – especially in a post-Brexit environment – such as how Ofcom will use its new powers, how a regulator would deal with companies not based in the UK and ISP blocking – including how the UK reacts to technical developments such as DNS-over-HTTPS. ISPA will be working with its members on these and other points as we enter the next phase of consultation,” said Andrew Glover, the Chair of ISPA.

It had previously been rumoured that the new UK government would push for a more radical appointment, but maybe this additional internet censorship remit caused it to err on the side of caution. Dawes would have had her hands full without the impossible job of policing the internet, now she’s really got her work cut out.

The US election will test social media censorship to breaking point

Electoral losers are increasingly blaming social media for their failure, but this year will demonstrate that censorship is not the answer.

Democracy only works if the losers of elections accept defeat, but sadly few are inclined to do so these days. Now we have five stages of electoral grief that are directly analogous to the original Kübler-Ross model. We still have denial, anger and depression, but instead of bargaining we have litigation and acceptance seems to have been replaced with conspiracy theories in which social media plays a central role.

The central concern is that when the electorate votes for the other team it must be because they were mislead in some way, because no rational, fully informed person could fail to recognise the superiority of my team. In the past some blame could be attached to the mainstream media, something the UK Labour party still persists with. In the US, however, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 despite having the support of no major media, would appear to render that theory obsolete.

Trump was able to prevail because politicians are no longer dependent on the old media to communicate directly with the electorate, thanks to social media. But this significantly lowered barrier to entry into the public sphere also provides fertile ground for electoral losers searching for mitigation and another bite at the cherry.

A favourite on both sides of the pond is to blame ‘the Russians’. While cold war fervour largely shifted its focus to China, Russia remains a strong source of bogeymen. Now it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence of social media bot farms originating from a number of countries, including Russia, that apparently seek to meddle in elections. What is much harder to prove is whether they had any effect on the outcome of elections whatsoever.

The small matter of evidence is never going to stand in the way of those refusing to concede defeat, however, and it has now become conventional wisdom that social media censorship is vital if we are to ever have untainted elections again. Since the US is in the middle of another of its interminable general election campaigns this year, the heat is being turned up on social media and they are being forced to respond.

Last week Twitter announced it was ‘turning on a tool for key moments of the 2020 US election that enables people to report misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event.’ The tweet implies the tool has a broader purpose than that, though, as it also includes intimidation and misrepresenting of political affiliation. Already you can see how a simple censorship objective becomes immediately and massively complicated under the weight of interpretation, semantics and generally chasing its tail.

Then you have Google and its subsidiary YouTube blogging about how much they ‘support’ elections, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Again a lot of this focuses on content that is intended to mislead voters, but since electioneering is biased by definition, surely all of it is intended to mislead to some extent. YouTube also reiterates its aim to promote ‘authoritative’ voices, which is code for establishment media and commentariat.

In contrast, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is increasingly pushing back on censorship, having tried and failed to walk that tightrope since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Perhaps motivated by the prospect of an extra four years of Trump, who has made his feelings known on censorship, Zuckerberg is now turning all free speech absolutist on us. Whether that position will survive even the first engagement of the US electoral process remains highly debatable, however.

Early signs of the immense pressure these platform owners will come under are already appearing, with the Democrats mobilising supposed experts to ‘protect’ the electoral process. “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus will mark the DNC’s greatest challenge so far in efforts to guard its presidential contenders from the same fate that befell Hillary Clinton in 2016 when her campaign was upended by a Russian-backed hacking and disinformation effort,” reports the Washington Post in depressingly partisan fashion.

If that WaPo piece is anything to go by everyone is going to be trying to manipulate not only the US Presidential election, but the Democratic primaries too, where non-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders is currently the front-runner. Presumably YouTube doesn’t intend to punish the country’s mainstream media for misleading the electorate, so it seems it will support democracy by censoring everyone else.

As ever, censoring free societies is a game of whack-a-mole, in which policy-making can never hope to keep up with the desire of its people to say what they want. Even if the social media companies are successful in their stated censorship objectives, which they won’t be, the team that loses will still blame them. So they might as well not bother and trust their users to sort the wheat from the chaff. Afterall, they’ve been doing that with mainstream media for years.

Twitter tries to find another way to solve the censorship dilemma

Social media giant Twitter is exploring the creation of an open standard that it hopes will provide the answer to the impossible question of censorship.

As you would expect the announcement was made by Twitter CEO via a tweet in which he announced the creation of a small team to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. In the thread he cites some of the inspiration for the move as coming from an essay entitled ‘Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech’. The author of that essay has already written an article cautiously welcoming this move.

Right now all social media are siloed platforms providing their own technology and rules. That means they’re also in the impossible position of trying to censor the stuff their users publish in order to please other users as well as advertisers and regulators. Right now they face constant pressure from all three and, of course, can never please all of the people all of the time.

At the core of the dilemma, as the essay implies, is free speech and its opposite: censorship. Determining what speech is good and bad is inherently subjective and an impossible tightrope to walk. We have long argued that any attempt to do so is futile and that the best solution for social media platforms would be to throw themselves at the mercy of regulators, thus absolving themselves of responsibility for censorship decisions.

This move by Twitter seems to be an early investigation into the possibility of an alternative resolution by creating a basic social media protocol, of which it would by just one of the clients, that could serve as the foundation for a number of other platforms. All social traffic would take place over this protocol, but then individual platforms could implement their own unique rules about what content they allowed to be published.

It’s very early days and there are all kinds of reasons why it may never take off, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Right now social media companies are being regulated like platforms but as they increasingly curate the content they host are acting more like publishers. Unless they find a way of resolving this conundrum themselves, state authorities will end up doing it for them,

As if to illustrate the point YouTube has announced yet another update to its harassment policy, including ‘a stronger stance against threats and personal attacks’. This amounts to a ban on ‘veiled or implied threats’, ‘demeaning language that goes too far’ and ‘content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes’.

On the surface who could have a problem with action against threatening, demeaning and insulting speech, right? It’s only when you try to establish the precisely when speech crosses any of those lines that you see what a futile, subjective and censorious policy this is. Expect a further update within months after some one claims to be upset about something and then another soon after that. You never know, eventually YouTube might come around to this protocol business.

Apple U-turns again to pull HK map app under pressure from Beijing

Apple has removed the crowd-sourced app HKmap.live, favoured by the protesters in Hong Kong, from its local App Store, after being blasted by China’s state media.

The submission of the mapping app, developed on top of the web version which could enable users to instantly track the police movements, among other things on the roads, was first rejected by Apple, on the ground that “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” This caused strong protest from both local users in Hong Kong and politicians in the US so Apple reversed its decision and made the app available. The US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) told his followers on Twitter that Apple admitted it “mistakenly” failed to go through full review process the first time:

Shortly after the change of mind by Apple, the People’s Daily, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s major propaganda outlets, accused Apple of “helping HK rioters engage in more violence”. Apple quickly undertook a second reversal in days to take down the app. The company said in a statement on the decision that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” The web version is still available.

This is only one of the latest actions Apple has taken after finding itself caught in a perfect political storm. One day earlier it also removed Quartz, the online news publication, from the China App Store, following complaints from the Chinese government. Apple told Quartz that the app “includes content that is illegal in China”, reported The Verge.

Quartz believed this might refer to its discussion on VPN technologies, the use of which is illegal in China, and its coverage of and links to coverage of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Quartz’s website is also blocked by China’s Great Firewall. A week earlier when Apple updated its operating system, iPhone users who set their locale to  Hong Kong and Macau found the Taiwan flag had disappeared from emojis.

This is just one of the highest profile cases of global companies contorting themselves to appease local political interests, with China the centre of attention not the least because of its reputation as one of the most censorious countries, Apple vs. China only epitomises the delicate balance almost all global companies are forced to strike, and not always successfully. Whenever they enter markets that operate very differently to their domestic one, these companies, especially those from North America and Western Europe, have to make a choice between the values of their origin and market pressure.

Increasingly we have seen companies surrender to market pressure, which has led to more either remedial or even pre-emptive self-censorship. Such conflict has a long history in the digital age. Back in 2010, Google pulled out of China when it decided to no longer comply with the latter’s demand for censoring search results. In the same year, India, Indonesia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, among others, demanded access to the encrypted communication carried out by the then king of instant messaging, BlackBerry Messenger, for national security and data localisation purposes. RIM, the then owner of BlackBerry, bowed to the Saudi pressure, and Nokia, who also operated messaging services, decided to set up a local data centre in India.

Recently we have seen Google’s repeated attempts to re-enter China, by offering willingly to censor content to please the Chinese authorities, despite backlashes in its own office. Meanwhile games developer Blizzard had faced a backlash for acting against a Hong Kong protester, as has the US NBA for similar activity.

Europe steps up its censorship efforts

The European Commission wants to pay people to help ensure only the kind of information it approves of is allowed to be published online.

The initiative is being called the European Digital Media Observatory and it is the continuation of a digital censorship project the EC has been working on for some time. The stated aim is to counter ‘disinformation’, which is defined as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.”

On the surface what’s not to like about this? Everyone knows the internet is awash with misleading and biased information that presumably, at least in part, is published with the aim of persuading the public of a certain point of view. If people are given the wrong information then they might make the wrong electoral decisions and that would be bad.

The main problem with censorship is subjectivity. Who decides what is false or misleading and who can possibly be sure of the motives for someone else’s actions? The answer to that question in this case seems to be anyone who fancies €2.5 million of European public money, because today the EC published a call for tenders to create the first core service of this new censor.

“The European Digital Media Observatory will allow fact-checkers and academic researchers to bring together their efforts and actively collaborate with media organisations and media literacy experts,” said the announcement. Don’t worry folks, the experts have got this, you’ll only get the purest, most correct information from now on.

The inclusion of the private sector in this project may be designed to create the impression of neutrality as well as expertise, but whoever wins the tender will be acutely aware of who pays their salary. Can we be sure that suspected disinformation which is helpful to the EU will be treated with the same severity as that which is harmful to it? The best counter to disinformation is public scrutiny, not censorship.

Europe wants Facebook to implement its censorship requests globally

A new ruling by the EU Court of Justice seems to compel social media companies to enact EU censorship demands even outside of its jurisdiction.

The judgment was made on the case of Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook Ireland, in which the Austrian Green Party politician seeks to force Facebook to remove content that she feels is harmful to her reputation and anything that sounds a bit like it. The court was asked to interpret the Directive on electronic commerce and concluded it doesn’t prevent member states from imposing the following on ‘host providers’, which seems to mean all social media platforms and maybe beyond.

  • To remove information which it stores, the content of which is identical to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, irrespective of who requested the storage of that information;
  • To remove information which it stores, the content of which is equivalent to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, provided that the monitoring of and search for the information concerned by such an injunction are limited to information conveying a message the content of which remains essentially unchanged compared with the content which gave rise to the finding of illegality and containing the elements specified in the injunction, and provided that the differences in the wording of that equivalent content, compared with the wording characterising the information which was previously declared to be illegal, are not such as to require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment of that content (thus, the host provider may have recourse to automated search tools and technologies);
  • To remove information covered by the injunction or to block access to that information worldwide within the framework of the relevant international law, and it is up to Member States to take that law into account.

In other words, if an EU member state decides a bit of online content should be censored, there’s nothing stopping it legally compelling internet platforms to remove it and anything its algorithms consider to be similar to it on a global basis. This seems to put enormous power of censorship in the hands of EU claimants who can afford to litigate.

“This judgment has major implications for online freedom of expression around the world,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of free speech campaign group Article 19. “Compelling social media platforms like Facebook to automatically remove posts regardless of their context will infringe our right to free speech and restrict the information we see online. The judgment does not take into account the limitations of technology when it comes to automated filters.

“The ruling also mean that a court in one EU member state will be able to order the removal of social media posts in other countries, even if they are not considered unlawful there. This would set a dangerous precedent where the courts of one country can control what Internet users in another country can see. This could be open to abuse, particularly by regimes with weak human rights records.”

As calls for censorship mount, the global policing of speech on the internet is becoming impossibly convoluted. Will the EU now seek to punish Facebook, or whoever, if a bit of content it doesn’t like is accessible somewhere outside of its jurisdiction, and if so how? What if courts in the other country take a different view? As ever the only solution is to not censor in the first place.

Silicon Valley drops the ball on censorship once more

Yet another set of ill-considered censorship decisions by Silicon Valley has illustrated once more the impossible position they are in.

Google has announced it will now ‘elevate original reporting in search’. On one level this is totally laudable. Modern journalism has been severely corrupted by the wholesale shift in advertising spend from print to journalism and thus put in the hands of the digital advertising platforms, of which the biggest is Google itself.

The move to digital has squeezed media margins, with advertisers looking for demonstrable ROI where once the circulation and brand of a publication was sufficient reassurance of ad money well spent. As a result the total number of journalists employed has dropped dramatically which, in combination with the explosion of digital publications, has meant each remaining hack has to produce much more content than previously.

Digital ad spend also directly rewards direct traffic in a way print never did, which means media are incentivised to publish a high volume of ‘click bait’ journalism, which is typically of a low standard and designed more to provoke than inform. Of all the companies in the world Google is easily the most directly culpable for this trend and now it’s belatedly trying to correct it.

“While we typically show the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results, we’ve made changes to our products globally to highlight articles that we identify as significant original reporting,” said Richard Gringras, head of Google News. “Such articles may stay in a highly visible position longer.”

There’s a lot to like about this. Prominence in Google news equals more clicks, which equals more revenue. If follows, therefore, that any tweaks to the algorithm that promote proper reporting (which is much more expensive than opinion or re-reporting) are a step in the right direction. But Gringras himself acknowledged the complexity of the situation this puts Google in, in his next paragraph.

“There is no absolute definition of original reporting, nor is there an absolute standard for establishing how original a given article is,” said Gringras. “It can mean different things to different newsrooms and publishers at different times, so our efforts will constantly evolve as we work to understand the life cycle of a story.”

In other words Google decides what news is worthy of delivering to the public. Even if we assume those decisions will always be made in good faith and that the associated algorithms will somehow be furnished, in real time, with the most exhaustive context, this is still a lot power to be put in the hands of one commercial entity.

On top of that Gringras himself was the head of digital publisher Salon before moving to Google in 2011. Salon is widely recognised to be significantly biased in favour of perspectives and issues considered to be left wing and you have to assume its long time boss is also that way inclined. How can we be sure his own political positions don’t influence the decision-making of his team? US President Donald Trump will doubtless be asking that very question before long.

What media spend hasn’t shifted to Google has been mostly hoovered up by fellow Silicon Valley giant Facebook. As a social media platform it faces an even greater censorship challenge than Google (if you just focus on the search bit, not YouTube) and has been even less consistent and coherent in its approach, leaving it open to extensive accusations of bias.

Facebook’s latest attempt to clarify its censorship policies offers little clarity or reassurance to its users. Here are the new criteria, as copied from the official announcement.

  • Authenticity: We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Safety: We are committed to making Facebook a safe place. Expression that threatens people has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others and isn’t allowed on Facebook.
  • Privacy: We are committed to protecting personal privacy and information. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves, and to choose how and when to share on Facebook and to connect more easily.
  • Dignity: We believe that all people are equal in dignity and rights. We expect that people will respect the dignity of others and not harass or degrade others. 

While privacy seems relatively easy to determine and thus police, authenticity, safety and dignity are very subjective, ill-defined concepts. Facebook could arbitrarily determine almost anything to be inauthentic or undignified, so all this announcement really does is assert Facebook’s right to unilaterally censor its platform.

The Facebook announcement comes the day after reports of it censoring a piece of content published on it that challenged the claims made in another piece concerning abortion. This isn’t the place to examine the relative merits of the positions stated, but since abortion is one of the most polarising issues out there, and that balancing the rights of the mother and infant is a uniquely challenging ethical dilemma, for Facebook to apparently pick a side in this case has inevitably led to accusations of bias.

Lastly even crowdfunding service Kickstarter is under pressure to censor projects on its platform. A comic titled ‘Always Punch Nazis’ was taken down after claims that it violated Kickstarter’s community guidelines. Slate reports that many Kickstarter employees objected to this decision, which resulted in it being reversed but also claims of recriminations against some prominent protesters. This in turn has led to moves to unionize among Kickstart staff.

Once more we see that it’s impossible for a digital platform to issue watertight ‘community guidelines’ and that arbitrary censorship decisions will always be vulnerable to accusations of bias. The comic claimed to be satirical, which should offer at least some protection, but it still falls on someone to assess that claim.

Prior to the internet there were very few opportunities for regular punters to be published, let alone to a global audience. Social media especially has revolutionised the public dissemination of information and opinion, while concentrating the policing of it in the hands of a few democratically unaccountable companies. They will continue to try to perfect their censorship policies and they will continue to fail.

YouTube flexes its editorial muscles

As video sharing service YouTube strives to censor ever more rigorously, can it still be considered a neutral platform?

Social media platforms are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern the media because they don’t exercise editorial control over what is published on them. Every time they move to censor some types of content and favour others, however, that status comes into question.

Last week YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki published a blog titled Preserving openness through responsibility, in which she argued that it was vital for YouTube to be as open as possible and that the only way to guarantee that was to get rid of any content it doesn’t like. Wojcicki characterised this censorship as ‘responsibility’ and explained that it’s comprised of four other Rs that are explained in the graphic below.

YouTube Rs

Clearly proud of its removal efforts, YouTube wasted little time in blogging about its removal efforts. Featuring liberal use of conveniently nebulous and ill-defined terms such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘problematic’ the blog details YouTube’s constant meddling with its own policies and the increasing vigour with which it enforces them by taking down content and kicking creators off the platform in the name of openness.

YouTube removal

Of course YouTube does have to exercise some control over its platform, for example the removal of illegal content. The problem for creators and YouTube’s own claims of openness is thatits policies extend far beyond preventing illegality, are arbitrary and are getting stricter by the day. Protecting its advertisers by demonetizing edgy content is one thing, but there has to be a point at which the imposition of a strict and comprehensive set of editorial parameters on its creators means YouTube can no longer be considered a platform and is thus legally responsible for every piece of content it publishes.

Twitter and Facebook move to block Chinese state-backed disinformation campaign

US social media sites have announced coordinated action designed to counter a propaganda campaign apparently designed to undermine the Hong Kong democracy protests.

Twitter was the first site alerted to this activity, with some users flagging up sponsored posts from state-run media that seemed biased against the mass gatherings in Hong Kong that are protesting moves to give the Chinese state greater power over the semi-autonomous region.

Twitter also published a blog post titled Information operations directed at Hong Kong, in which it said “We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.” This took the form of almost a thousand phoney accounts apparently designed to amplify messaging undermining the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protests, which have now been suspended.

Removing any doubt about censorship activity being coordinated between internet giants, Facebook then announced it is acting on a tip from Twitter to remove a few accounts suspected of ‘inauthentic behaviour’ from China. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said the Facebook announcement.

Lastly, while not explicitly referring to China, this propaganda campaign has clearly prompted Twitter to announce it will no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Somewhat belatedly is has dawned on Twitter that state-controlled media is sometimes a tiny bit biased towards the state that controls it, which can have direct political consequences. Who knew?

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump is persisting with his claims that Google exerted some deliberate influence against him in the 2016 US general election. He cites an unspecified report that claims up to 16 million votes were manipulated in favour of his opponent Hilary Clinton in the election and called for Google to be sued.


Clinton herself has unsurprisingly queried the validity of the claim by attacking the, still unspecified, source. A number of other media have also criticised the presumed source of the claim, most of which make no secret of their antipathy towards Trump. As ever Trump’s tweet will have an underlying tactical purpose, in this case to threaten Google and any other internet company that maybe tempted to use its platform to favour his 2020 opponent.