Who gets to express what ideas online, and how? Who has the authority and the responsibility to police online expression and through what mechanisms?
Dozens of researchers, advocates, and content moderation workers came together in Los Angeles this December to share expertise on what are emerging as the critical questions of the day. “All Things in Moderation” speakers and participants included experienced content moderators — like Rasalyn Bowden, who literally wrote the moderation manual for MySpace — and pioneer researchers who understood the profound significance of commercial content moderation before anyone else, alongside key staff from industry. After years of toiling in isolation, many of us working on content moderation issues felt relief at finally finding “our people” and seeing the importance of our work acknowledged.
If the idea that commercial content moderation matters is quickly gaining traction, there is no consensus on how best to study it — and until we understand how it works, we can’t know how to structure it in a way that protects human rights and democratic values. One of the first roundtables of the conference considered the methodological challenges to studying commercial content moderation, key among which is companies’ utter lack of transparency around these issues.
While dozens of companies in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector publish some kind of transparency report, these disclosures tend to focus on acts of censorship and privacy violations that companies undertake at the behest of governments. Companies are much more comfortable copping to removing users’ posts or sharing their data if they can argue that they were legally required to do it. They would much rather not talk about how their own activities and their business model impact not only people’s individual rights to free expression and privacy, but the very fabric of society itself. The data capitalism that powers Silicon Valley has created a pervasive influence infrastructure that’s freely available to the highest bidder, displacing important revenue from print journalism in particular. This isn’t the only force working to erode the power of the Fourth Estate to hold governments accountable, but it’s an undeniable one. As Victor Pickard and others have forcefully argued, the dysfunction in the American media ecosystem — which has an outsized impact on the global communications infrastructure — is rooted in the original sin of favoring commercial interests over the greater good of society. The FCC’s reversal of the 2015 net neutrality rules is only the latest datapoint in a decades-long trend.
The first step toward reversing the trend is to get ICT companies on the record about their commitments, policies and practices that affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. We can then evaluate whether these disclosed commitments, policies and practices sufficiently respect users’ rights, push companies to do better, and hold them to account when they fail to live up to their promises. To that end, the Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) project (where I was a fellow between 2014 and 2017) has developed a rigorous methodology for assessing ICT companies’ public commitments to respect their users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. The inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, published in November 2015, evaluated 16 of the world’s most powerful ICT companies across 31 indicators, and found that no company in the Index disclosed any information whatsoever about the volume and type of user content that is deleted or blocked when enforcing its own terms of service. Indeed, Indicator F9 — examining data about terms of service enforcement — was the only indicator in the entire 2015 Index on which no company received any points.
We revamped the Index methodology for the 2017 edition, adding six new companies to the mix, and were encouraged to see that three companies — Microsoft, Twitter, and Google — had modest disclosures about terms of service enforcement. Though it didn’t disclose any data about enforcement volume, the South Korean company Kakao disclosed more about how it enforces its terms of service than any other company we evaluated. Research for the 2018 Index and company engagement is ongoing, and we are continuing to encourage companies to clearly communicate what kind of content is or is not permitted on their platforms, how the rules are enforced (and by whom), and to develop meaningful remedy mechanisms for users whose freedom of expression has been unduly infringed. Stay tuned for the release of the 2018 Corporate Accountability Index this April.
Our experience has proven that this kind of research-based advocacy can have a real impact on company behavior, even if it’s never as fast as we might like. Ranking Digital Rights is committed to sharing our research methodology and our data (downloadable as a CSV file and in other formats) with colleagues in academia and the nonprofit sector. The Corporate Accountability Index is already being cited in media reports and scholarly research, and RDR is working closely with civil society groups around the world to hold a broader swath of companies accountable. All of RDR’s methodology documents, data, and other outputs are available under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY) — just make sure to give RDR credit.