More on moderation – and car number plates

Turns out there is already a legal action underway concerning the position of moderators. It is being brought against Microsoft by two ex-employees. It will be interesting to see how the case pans out. Microsoft has almost always been a leader in the field so whichever way the final judgement goes I’m sure we will be able to learn from it.

This whole discussion about moderation reminds us that the internet is not a single thing, rather it is a mish-mash of all sorts of technologies which, ultimately, ride on top of the TCP/IP protocol that is the unifying thread.

Existential threat? Yes, or no?

Ordering a plane ticket from Easyjet or the groceries from Tesco Online hardly poses any sort of existential threat. Many, by no means all, of the most difficult challenges instead centre on the way in which Web 2.0  has provided anyone and everyone with the possibility to publish their own content on a more or less unlimited basis.

In and of itself this is not an issue or a problem. Quite the reverse but, the way things have evolved, unthinkingly we have handed a megaphone and a stage to some extremely disturbed, violent and malevolent individuals who can safely rely on the fact that the volume of problematic content or behaviour online is so vast that unless they are very unlucky or egregious, the chance of them ever being held to account are exceptionally close to zero.  Alternatively, the individuals responsible are so disconnected or determined they don’t care if they are tracked down or exposed. Perhaps they live within a failed state or a part of the world where the authorities don’t care, can’t or won’t intervene, maybe even collude with them.

We created a system and now need defending from it

A seemingly still growing army of moderators is now engaged in trying to protect the rest of us from the consequences of our lack of foresight and care.

I guess we can all hope that AI will eventually provide a silver bullet but even its most energetic proponents doubt it will ever be smart enough to address everything. Thus a decision to stick with the status quo, or even a substantial part of the status quo with regard to user generated content, is in truth also a decision to condemn others to watch or read some terrible stuff.

Extremely radical –  unlikely to happen any time soon or even at all, but…..

Can we discuss other possibilities? Admittedly these are extremely radical and therefore are not immediately realisable. However, I would be astonished if, somewhere in the world, various interests had not already worked out a way of doing either or both, or some variation. Obviously I am not claiming ownership of these ideas. I publish them as a warning or rather an encouragement to get to a better place sooner.

The first route envisages more or less tearing up the internet as we know it today and, in effect, starting again. Internet 2.0 would have security embedded at every level. It would slide in alongside the existing internet , would not connect to it but would eventually become such an overwhelmingly attractive alternative for the vast majority of people that Internet 1.0 would wither away. Increasingly it would become known as the place where only weirdos and crooks hang out. A bit like today’s Dark Web.

On Internet 2.0 no one could log in from anywhere unless their identity was known with a high level of certainty. Neither could they connect via a device that had not been certified as meeting stringent security standards. Permissionless innovation does not become history but the rate of innovation, at least in terms of physical devices likely slows down. Apps may take days longer to reach an App Store as they too are more rigorously examined prior to release. At the last count, there were 7,588 different ways to view a video of a cute kitten playing with a ball of wool. We may need to wait a whole extra week for the 7,589th.

User generated content might not be allowed to exist at all, or would only be allowed on those platforms that agreed they were its publishers. Smaller sites might make it.  Bigger ones perhaps wouldn’t. Traditional forms of journalism would re-emerge. Fake news would not vanish but it would reduce significantly. Facebook would adapt or die.

All the accoutrements of the B2B internet would be preserved as would B2C. Net neutrality would probably vanish because the pipes would belong to the small number of infrastructure companies that paid for the new thing to be built and marketed. Cable and telecom companies would likely be the mainstays.

As with the roll out of Internet 1.0 the USA and richer countries would benefit first and new countries could only connect when they agreed to meet and enforce the new regime. It would be messy and uneven but the vast majority of the world’s population would quickly find a way to live with it.  They might miss some of the edginess and unpredictability of the old order but as long a Netflix, Google Search, Amazon, email and the BBC were still there they would rub along.

Number plates

The second route is not quite as far out but it is still a bit on the wild side.  I’m thinking about car number plates. We have a worldwide system which does two things: allows for the very rapid and inexpensive identification of people who appear to have broken the rules of the road in any jurisdiction and because of that it also encourages the vast majority of people to be better drivers in the first place. Every country has an incentive to comply. People can drive around and do stuff anonymously. Only if there is a suspected infringement might one’s activities or whereabouts be scrutinised.

Thus I could still log on as, say, RKW 48 (the registration of my dad’s first car – long since canned) and that is who I could be to the rest of the world unless or until I chose otherwise. RKW 48 could pop up as “Margaret” on one site or “Buffalo Bill” on another and as long as my alter egos stayed within the rules no one would know or care.

What if….and but….

I can already hear a litany of “what if’s and buts”,  and I am aware of the practical difficulties of getting such a system up and running on a global basis, yet consider where we are today in terms of what is or could be known about us and by whom, simply by virtue of connecting to the internet.  The number plates thing, at one level, would simply act as a reminder to everyone that while all the joys of the internet are open to them, they should remember they can now be swiftly identified should the need arise. My guess is that this one thing would do a huge amount to reduce the bad behaviour that is causing so much distress, not just to moderators but to the rest of us.

Whistleblowers and political repression

What about whistleblowers and those who live under politically repressive regimes? Yep. I acknowledge that’s an issue although I think its potential importance is hugely exaggerated, particularly by those who are against the basic idea anyway.  Even so I hope to find a way to avoid it. Maybe someone smarter than me can come up with an answer. However, saying leave things as they are won’t wash. In the long run it is not sustainable. Number plates might be the only way to save some semblance of what we currently think of as being the internet.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More:
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