Online Harms: A Few Times When The Algorithms Chilled Freedom of Expression

The consultation to the British government’s Online Harms White Paper closed this week. English PEN and Scottish PEN made a submission, arguing that the government rethink its approach.

The government proposal is that a new ‘duty of care’ is placed upon online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to protect their users. If they expose users to harmful content—ranging from terrorist propaganda and child porn, to hazily defined problems like ‘trolling’ — then a new regulator could sanction them.

This sounds sensible, but it presents a problem for freedom of expression. If the online platforms are threatened with large fines, and their senior management are held personally responsible for the ‘duty of care’ then it’s likely that the online platforms will take a precautionary approach to content moderation. Whenever in doubt, whenever it’s borderline, whenever there is a grey area… the platforms will find it expeditious to remove whatever has been posted. When that happens, it is unlikely that the platforms will offer much of an appeals process, and certainly not one that abides by international free speech standards. A situation will arise where perfectly legal content cannot be posted online. A two tier system for speech.

You might say: But Rob, so what? Surely the only people who will be caught by this are the racists and other hate speakers? If the system censors their cusp-of-legality Holocaust denial or race baiting, would that be such a bad thing?

Well unfortunately, the problem is much wider than that. The PEN submission includes a few links to instances of art work that had been censored by Facebook algorithms.

This list is not exhaustive.

But Rob, you might protest, again. This is only temporary censorship. If you complain the image will be restored.

Well yes, this is possible if the gallery is high profile enough to garner some publicity. But what if you’re a new artist, just starting out, and don’t have the institutional heft to moan when your art gets similarly censored? I am reminded that the Off Black magazine Instagram feed was censored in its first iteration, when its young curators were posting images relating to sexuality and androgyny. Worthy, important, and totally legal… yet not allowed on the most crucial image sharing platform on the planet. A serious, meaningful barrier to several artists and designers forging a career for themselves.

And more: It’s not just that we might be denied an artistic or cultural moment, when a painting or a photograph goes AWOL. It’s that we also miss out on crucial public interest discussions, and health advice.

These are cases where discussion about a harmful thing is mistaken for the harmful thing itself. When this kind of content is censored, is not a mere inconvenience or a sub-optimal absence, that we all need to learn to live with. It is suppression of analysis, discussion and advice on the very issues that the Online Harms White Paper seeks to address. It makes things worse.

The British government needs to rethink its approach. PEN and other civil society groups have suggested that a regulatory approach focused on protecting international human rights standards would work better. That translates across jurisdictions better than a subjective test of ‘harm’ It would also protect free speech and privacy rights alongside our right not to be subjected to threatening, criminal content.

Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine

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