Transparency in Content Moderation

Nicolas Suzor

What content are you allowed to see and share online? The answer is surprisingly complicated. Our new project, funded by the Internet Policy Observatory, and including researchers from, Queensland University of Technology, and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, works to engage civil society organizations and academic researchers to create a consensus-based priority list of the information users and researchers need to better understand content moderation and improve advocacy efforts around user rights.

The secret rules of content moderation

Search engines, content hosts, social media platforms, and other tech firms often make decisions to delete content, block links, and suspend accounts. The Terms of Service of these providers give them a great deal of power over how we communicate, but they have few responsibilities to be consistent, fair, or transparent.

Content moderation is a difficult task, and the decisions that platforms make are always going to upset someone. It’s little surprise that platforms prefer to do this work in secret. But as high profile leaks and investigative journalism, lsuch as the recently published Guardian ‘Facebook Files’, start to expose the contradictions and value judgments built into these systems, they’re becoming more controversial all the time. As Tarleton Gillespie puts it, the secrecy makes this entire process more difficult and more contentious:

The already unwieldy apparatus of content moderation just keeps getting more built out and intricate, laden down with ad hoc distinctions and odd exceptions that somehow must stand in for a coherent, public value system. The glimpse of this apparatus that these documents reveal, suggest that it is time for a more substantive, more difficult reconsideration of the entire project — and a reconsideration that is not conducted in secret.

The need for transparency

As the United Nations’ cultural organization UNESCO has pointed out, there are real threats to freedom of expression when private companies are responsible for moderating content.

When governments make decisions about what content is allowed in the public domain, there are often court processes and avenues of appeal. When a social media platform makes such decisions, users are often left in the dark about why their content has been removed (or why their complaint has been ignored).

It turns out that we know very little about the rules that govern what content is permitted on different social media platforms. Organizations like Ranking Digital Rights evaluate how well telecommunications providers and internet companies perform against measures of freedom of expression and privacy. In its 2017 report, RDR found that ‘Company disclosure is inadequate across the board’:

Companies tell us almost nothing about when they remove content or restrict users’ accounts for violating their rules. Through their terms of service and user agreements, companies set their own rules for what types of content or activities are prohibited on their services and platforms, and have their own internal systems and processes for enforcing these rules. Companies need to disclose more information about their enforcement processes and the volume and nature of content being removed.

What does ‘transparency’ mean?

While there have been many calls for greater transparency in content moderation decisions, there is little guidance available for internet intermediaries about the types of information they are expected to produce.

This project sets out to build consensus on a practical set of guidelines for best practices in transparency for content moderation practices.

We do this first by undertaking a review of the most common demands from users themselves. Now in its second year, has been collecting reports on users’ experiences when their accounts are suspended or content is deleted. From these complaints, we identify specific measures that intermediaries might be able to take to improve the experiences of users who have either had content removed or requested the removal of another user’s content.

We will then organize a series of workshops at academic conferences and civil society meetings over the next year to produce a prioritized list of specific recommendations for telecommunications providers and internet intermediaries. Because demands for greater transparency have so far been made in general and sometimes conflicting terms, there is little specific guidance about what measures are likely to be most useful.

We’ll be posting more updates here as the project progresses. If you’d like to get involved in this work, please contact Nicolas Suzor at QUT School of Law:

The Internet Policymaking Landscape in Pakistan

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Usama Khilji & Saleha Zahid

As smartphones and mobile data rates have become cheaper, internet access in Pakistan has expanded rapidly and more and more Pakistanis are now online. This has increased people’s access to information, and provided a much needed platform for citizens to express opinions through criticism of state policies, dissent, and political commentary. For a state machinery like Pakistan’s that is not shy of clamping down on press freedom, the internet poses a new challenge: how can the internet be regulated, and information be controlled?

Internet governance today is a global challenge, especially with regards to the balance between civil liberties and security. This is concerning in a country like Pakistan which has faced the challenge of local terrorism since soon after 9/11. However, the government’s actions against online actors have largely targeted critics of the state rather than violent, non-state actors that use social media for disseminating hate speech.

This is the first study focused on Pakistan that attempts to map the country’s internet policymaking process, identify its stakeholders, and analyse the strengths and shortcomings of each. The main bodies for law and policy making related to the internet in Pakistan are the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom (MoITT), the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), and the National Assembly and Senate Standing Committees on Information Technology and Telecom. Further, the study looks at specific cases in internet policy making, such as the processes surrounding both the recently passed Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, and the Internet Clearing House (ICH) issue. This research also chronicles the history of internet policymaking in Pakistan, starting with the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) Act of 2002.

Via interviews with key stakeholders, this study reveals Pakistan’s ad-hoc, reactionary, internet policymaking, as well as a state apparatus, including the bureaucracy, politicians, and the judiciary, that has little technological understanding and hence mandates orders that are ineffective, undemocratic, and draconian. The blockages of Facebook in 2010, and of YouTube in 2008 and from 2013 to 2016 are testimony to the government’s tendency toward knee-jerk reactions to perceived challenges online.

The main questions explored in this research include: what is the internet policymaking process in Pakistan? Is it democratic? How inclusive is it? Do policymakers and legislators invite and include public input? Does the process involve multiple stakeholders such as academics, technology experts, businesses, internet users, and activists? The study also explores whether the laws and policies related to the internet in Pakistan are constitutional, in line with international standards, in support of fundamental rights, and effective. The case study of the Inter Ministerial Committee for Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) shows how a body formed by the executive was eventually found unconstitutional and disbanded on court orders.

The key findings of the report indicate that the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom lacks the trust of stakeholders, that there is consensus among the politicians related to blockage of content that is blasphemy and pornographic, and that long-term strategic plans for internet and telecom policy in Pakistan are absent. The study concludes with recommendations for a transparent policy- and law-making process that includes all stakeholders.

To read the full report, please click here.

Turkey’s Internet Policy after the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance

Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sozeri

In the early 1990s, the internet in Turkey was in the purview of academic and research institutions and had not yet become a commercial medium available to the masses. Today, 61% of the population (approximately 49 million) is online, and the government is heavily investing in fiber optic infrastructure to attract foreign capital to the country’s growing telecom sector. However, in parallel with the expansion of the digital communications network and the steady growth in overall usage, governmental policies have become increasingly restrictive over the years. In this report, Bilge Yesil and Efe Kerem Sözeri (with assistance from Emad Khazraee in data collection) examine the evolution of internet policy in Turkey from the early 2000s to the present time, analyze the emergence of new forms of internet regulation in a precarious democracy marked by authoritarian impulses, and reveal the fragility of the so-called links between the increase in digital communications and the creation of a pluralistic online sphere.

The report begins with an overview of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government’s regulatory measures, and discusses its initiatives that aim to confine the networked public sphere in response to political crises and the potentially disruptive affordances of social media platforms. Following this overview, the report focuses on the emerging policy developments and online restrictions in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt that triggered the expansion of an online surveillance-censorship-control regime.

Between the early 1990s and mid-2000s, internet regulation was largely left to the courts, which prosecuted individual users in a somewhat random fashion, generally penalizing them based on alleged crimes against national unity and identity. The next decade witnessed the passage of the first Internet Law in 2007 that was largely propelled by online child pornography concerns, and the construction of legal and technical infrastructures that enabled administrative entities and courts to block so-called harmful content, create default filters, and ban tens of thousands of websites.

The year 2013 marks a turning point regarding the AKP government’s internet policy. During the Gezi Park protests and the corruption scandal, the AKP government became acutely aware of the role of social media in organizing protests, mobilizing activists, and disseminating information to the masses. To crack down on such activities considered threatening to its rule and legitimacy, it introduced new limitations on online communications and privacy, such as the passing of stricter internet legislation, use of throttling and content removal, and surveillance and prosecution of social media users.

Online restrictions worsened considerably in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Under the declared state of emergency that has been in place since the summer of 2016, the AKP government has expanded its powers by passing decree laws, issuing gag orders, blocking websites, shutting down the internet in certain parts of the country, restricting VPN and cloud services, and enlisting partisan social media users to harass and intimidate oppositional voices.

Drawing on data gathered from analyses of Twitter activity before and after the abortive coup; Twitter, Facebook and Google transparency reports; Lumen database on Turkish court orders and traffic data on throttling, as well as interviews with internet activists and legal scholars, the report points to the emergence of a distributed and decentralized system of suppression, surveillance and intimidation that involves both government and non-government actors, and hard and soft forms of control. The authors note that the Turkish government’s use and abuse of its powers has heralded a perilous era for online freedoms of information, speech and privacy.

To read the full report, please click here.

Respective Roles: Towards an International Treaty for Internet Freedom?

While the idea to have a “Magna Carta” for the Internet, protecting online freedoms such as freedom of expression, online assembly, or privacy, isn’t new, the question remains on how the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) could adopt binding documents – and whether it should at all. This article offers food for thought on how all IGF stakeholders could collaborate in an attempt to develop an international legal framework without expanding the scope of the mandate of the IGF. Instead, this nascent idea makes use of existing structures involving a range of stakeholders, including the Dynamic Coalitions, the Freedom Online Coalition and the Council of Europe.

Internet Governance & International Treaties

At the Opening Session of the last IGF Meeting in November 2015 in Joao Pessao, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye argued for an international treaty on human rights on the Internet. He said he saw a lack of legal certainty -substantive, jurisdictional, and procedural- that allows many around the world to perceive gaps in the application of human rights law online. He stressed that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression regardless of frontiers as a transboundary right. Kaye stated, “It is a challenge to traditional notions of Government control of territorial space, but it is a provision to be celebrated and put at the very center of Internet Governance.”

Joe Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, said that there was a need to improve existing legal instruments: “In international law, justiceable agreements are those that are included in conventions, legally binding international treaties. Thus, if Internet Governance is to be obtained, it must be treaty based.”

“Ultimately, nothing can substitute international agreement between governments acting on the advice and in the spirit of multistakeholder agreements”, Cannataci added.

Other participants, however, especially among civil society, voiced reservations that an international treaty would endanger a free Internet rather than provide for its protection, especially if such a treaty is ratified by governments that engage in mass surveillance, implement overreaching copyright laws, have poor privacy protection, limit access to an open Internet, or violate other human rights in their jurisdiction.

The multi-stakeholder model of internet governance at “worst may be a front for corporate self-regulation or government policy whitewashing”, warns for example Jeremy Malcolm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And indeed, countries such as China or Russia and many from the Middle East are openly in favor for more government control in Internet governance, lobbying for multilateral or intergovernmental arrangements, where states are the primary actors, administered by the ITU. In a Joint Communiqué dating from April 2016, the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China emphasized “the need to internationalize Internet governance and to enhance in this regard the role of International Telecommunication Union”.

So, with these debates as a backdrop, how could a human rights-centered and multi stakeholder-based international treaty on basic human rights on the Internet be formed and what would it look like?…

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