Tag: censorship

Facebook Immune System

by on Oct.28, 2011, under general

…is the name of the system which protects Facebook from things that look like spam.

And it checks 25 billion actions every day autonomously.

FIS very likely makes Facebook a much better, safer place in most of what it does. But when you’re talking about that scale, you can’t help but think about the problems automated deletion pose for legitimate speech.

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Facebook, J30Strike, and the Discontents of Algorithmic Dispute Resolution

by on Oct.15, 2011, under general


The advent of the Internet brought with it the promise of digitally-mediated dispute resolution. However, the Internet has done more than simply move what might traditionally be called alternative dispute resolution into an online space. It also revealed a void which an entire new class of disputes, and dispute resolution strategies, came to fill. These disputes were the sorts of disputes that were too small or numerous for the old systems to handle. And so they had burbled about quietly in the darkness – bargaining deep in the shadow of the law and of traditional ADR – until the emerging net of digitally designed dispute resolution captured, organized, and systematized the process of resolving them. 

In most respects these systems have provided tremendous utility. I can buy things confidently on eBay with my Paypal account, knowing that should I be stiffed some software will sort it out (partially thanks to NCTDR, which helped eBay develop their system). Such systems can scale in a way that individually-mediated dispute resolution never could (with all due apologies to the job prospects of budding online ombudsmen) and, because of this, actually help more people than could be possible without them. 

We might usefully distinguish between two types of digital dispute resolution: 

  • Online Dispute Resolution: individually-mediated dispute resolution which occurs in a digital environment
  • Algorithmic Dispute Resolution: dispute resolution consisting primarily of processes which determine decisions based on their preexisting rules, structures, and design  

As I said before, algorithmic dispute resolution has provided tremendous utility to countless people. But I fear that, for other digital disputes of a different character, such processes pose tremendous dangers. Specifically, I am concerned about the implications of algorithmic dispute resolution for disputes arising over the content of speech which occurs in online spaces.

In the 1990s, when the Communications Decency Act was litigated, the Court described the Internet as a civic common for the modern age (“any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox”). Today’s Internet, however, looks and acts much more like a mall, where individuals wander blithely between retail outlets that cater to their wants and needs. Even the social network spaces of today function more like, say, a bar or restaurant, a place to sit and socialize, than they do a common. And while analysts may disagree about the degree to which the Arab Spring was faciliated by online communication; it is uncontested that whatever communication occurred did so primarily within privately enclosed networked publics like Twitter and Facebook as opposed to simply across public utilities and protocols like SMTP and BBSes.

The problem, from a civic perspective, of speech occurring in privately administered spaces is that it is not beholden to public priorities. Unlike the town common, where protestors assemble consecrated by the Constitution, private spaces operate under their own private conduct codes and security services. In this enclosed, electronic world, disputes about speech need not conform to Constitutional principles, but rather to the convenience of the corporate entity which administrates the space. And such convenience, more often than not, does not concord with the interests of civic society. 

Earlier this year, in June 2011, British protestors launched the J30Strike movement in protest of austerity measures imposed by the government. The protestors intended to organized a general strike on June 30th (hence, J30Strike). They purchased the domain name J30Strike.org, began blogging, and tries to spread the word online. Inspired, perhaps, by their Arab Spring counterparts, British protestors turned to Facebook, and encouraged members to post the link to their profiles.

What happened next is not entirely clear. What is clear that on and around June 20th, 2011, Facebook began blocking links to J30Strike. Anyone who attempted to post a link to J30Strike received an error message saying that the link “contained blocked content that has previously been flagged for being abusive or spammy.” Facebook also blocked all redirects or short links to J30Strike, and blocked links to sites which linked to J30Strike as well. For a period of time, as far as Facebook and its users were concerned, J30Strike didn’t exist.

Despite countless people formally protesting the blocking through Facebook’s official channels, it wasn’t until a muckraking journalist Nick Baumann from Mother Jones contacted Facebook that the problem was fasttracked and block removed. Facebook told Baumann that the block had been “in error” and that they “apologized for [the] inconvenience.”

Some of the initial commentary around the blocking of J30Strike was conspiratorial. The MJ article noted a cozy relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and David Cameron, and others worried about the relationship between Facebook and one of its biggest investors, the arch-conservative Peter Thiel.

Since Facebook’s blocking process is only slightly more opaque than obsidian, we are left to speculate as to how and why the site was blocked. However, I don’t think one needs to reach such sinister conclusions to be troubled by it.

What I think probably happened is something like this: members of J30Strike posted the original link. Some combination of factors – a high rate of posting by J30Strike adherents, a high rate of flagging by J30Strike opponents, and so forth – caused the link to cross a certain threshold and be automatically removed from Facebook. And it took the hounding efforts of a journalist from a provocative publication to get it reinstated. No tinfoil hats required. 

But even this mundane explanation deeply troubles me. Because it doesn’t matter, from a civic perspective, is not who blocked the link and why. What matters is that it was blocked at all.

What we see here is an example of algorithmic censorship. There was a process in place at Facebook to resolve disputes over “spammy” or “abusive” links. That process was probably put into place to help prevent the spread of viruses and malicious websites. And it probably worked pretty well for that.

But the design of the process also blocked the spread of a legitimate website advocating for political change. Whether or not the block was due a shadowy ideological opponent of J30Strike or to the automated design of the spam-protection algorithm is inconsequential. Either way, the effect is the same: for a time, it killed the spread of the J30Strike message, automatically trapping free expression in an infinite loop of suppression.

What we have here is fundamentally a problem of dispute resolution in the realm of speech. In public spaces, we have a robust system of dispute resolution for cases involving political speech, which involves the courts, the ACLU, and lots of cultural capital.

Within Facebook? Not so much. On their servers, the dispute was not a matter of weighty Constitutional concerns, but reduced instead to the following question: “based on the behavior of users – flagging and/or posting the J30Strike site – should this speech, in link form, be allowed to spread throughout the Facebook ecosystem?” An algorithm, rather than an individual, mediated the dispute; based on its design, it blocked the link. And while we might accept an blocking error which blocks a link to, say, a nonmalicious online shoe store, I think we must consider blocks of nonmalicious political speech unacceptable from a civic perspective. We have zealously guarded political speech as the most highly protected class of expression, and treated instances of it differently than “other” speech in recognizance of its civic indispensability. But an algorithm is incapable of doing so. 

This is censorship. It may be accidental, unintentional, and automated. We may be unable to find an individual on whom to place the moral blame for a particular outcome of a designed process. But none of that changes the fact that it is censorship, and its effects just as poisonous to civic discourse, no matter what the agency – individual or automaton – animating it.

My fear is that we have entered an inescapable age of algorithmic dispute resolution. That we won’t be able to inhabit (or indeed imagine) digital spaces without algorithms to mediate the conversations occurring within. And that these processes – designed with the best of intentions and capabilities – will inevitably throttle the town crier, like a golem turning dumbly on its master.

This post originally appeared on the site of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution.

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Facebook vs Ebert

by on Jun.21, 2011, under general

On the heels of the J30Strike fiasco, Facebook has turned its auto-censor cannon at…Ebert?

For movie critic Roger Ebert, it took only hours to criticize the late Jackass star Ryan Dunn for drinking and driving. Facebook just as swiftly took the film critic’s page down.

Dunn had died in a car crash that also took his friend’s life. After Ebert’s post about the late Jackass star, Facebook pulled the page and put up a placeholder disclaimer saying that the site doesn’t allow pages with hateful, threatening or obscene content.

Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes told us via email, “The page was was removed in error. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

My guess is something similar happened to J30Strike here. Lots of people flagged the post as abusive and the page was taken down.

I don’t support speaking ill of the dead. But I don’t think you need to in order to think this is also a dumb and bad decision. And Noyes’ response is exactly the same as yesterday, leading me to believe this happens fairly often.

The problem, of course, is that Ebert has a lot of clout, and J30Strike censorship ended after an investigative reporter called.

What about the folks who don’t have that much power? Are their rights restored as rapidly? I doubt it. And that still troubles me.

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Facebook Censors Citizen Activism Website

by on Jun.20, 2011, under general

Facebook strives to be the center of our social world – but is it also becoming its censor?

Via a friend, it appears that Facebook blocks links to the site http://www.j30strike.org/, a worker’s strike in London protesting austerity measures by the government.

See for yourself. Go to your Facebook profile and try to post the URL to your wall, or to share a link on that domain. Facebook refuses to let you post it, and has for the last few days.

It’s worth noting that J30Strike isn’t child porn. It isn’t incitement to terrorist attacks. It isn’t a ticking time bomb. It’s none of the sort of clear and present dangers usually cited as cause for censorship. It’s a website advocating for and educating about peaceful democratic activism.

The catchphrase of the critical legal studies movement is “all law is politics.” It’s important to realize that Facebook is politics too. With this move, Facebook is taking an active stand against democratic activism, and an active stand in favor of austerity. Facebook is Janus-faced; humbly accepting praise for facilitating democratic activism in the Middle East while, at the same time, blocking it in the West.

e: I should note that Facebook is now returning a message that says “this link could not be posted because it has been flagged as abusive or spam.” Let’s assume, for the moment, that this message is in earnest (and not the darker, more conspiratorial conclusion that that this is mere pretext). It doesn’t change my concern. If Facebook structures its technological architecture such that activist websites can be removed by a few folks reporting it as abusive, then it has the same abhorrent, centralized, censoring effect. You don’t need to have Peter Thiel pulling the strings for it to be a bad thing, as long as the effect is the same. Especially if such censorship can’t be remedied despite many people (over the last few days) notifying Facebook, through the appropriate channels, that the site is legitimate.

e2: it appears that the bit.ly link to j30strike is also blocked from being posted; the tinyurl.com link was just blocked as well within the last few hours.

e3: while again there is no hard evidence that Facebook’s leadership ordered this particular link blocked, this chummy video chat between Zuckerberg and Cameron about spending cuts doesn’t look so great in context.

e4: a friend sent a screenshot showing that if you try to share this post on my blog Facebook blocks it because the auto-imported metagraf includes the censored link. Now, obviously this is an effective tactic from a spam-blocking standpoint (again, assuming best intentions from Facebook here). What’s amazing is the way that, in cases like this, it shuts down metaconversations as well. Not only can you not share J30Strike; you can’t even share sites that link prominently to J30Strike in order to discuss it!

e5: I want to emphasize again that it this is troubling no matter why it is happening. If Facebook officials specifically sought out and blocked J30Strike, that’s troubling in a very obvious sort of way. But even if this censorship occured bottom-up (where enough people voted it as spam to be deleted, and where the avenues of redress and recategorization have been obviously insufficient for a few days) it’s still problematic, because the technology is self-executing. As a friend wrote, “[if that is the case] then it’s a fully automated system which can both censor something and then censor any and all discussion of the censorship itself.”

e6: scattered reports coming in that the J30Strike site can now be posted; will try to confirm, though my point in e5 still stands.

e7: Mother Jones has a story up about this, and I have some additional reactions as well.

e8: MorningStar picks up this post but doesn’t offer link? Pshaw.

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Educating Global Citizens

by on May.02, 2011, under general

From the Telegraph:


HOLLIS – Brookline resident and parent Valerie Ogden talked dirty to the School Board on Tuesday night.

In the two minutes she was allotted during the public comment part of the Hollis/Brookline Cooperative School Board meeting, Ogden recited a run-on sentence of sexually explicit words excerpted from a memoir on the high school reading list.

“I’m astounded by what we’re allowing our students to get their hands on,” Ogden said.

The audience cheered.

Over the past year or so a small group of puritanical parents have emerged from the ooze to terrorize my old hometown. Beginning with last year’s challenges of various books and documentaries – one parent, “disturbed after learning students viewed a film about drug use in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina”, is apparently disturbed by just plain learning – and continuing through the stunts at school board meetings this spring, this small group of radical anti-intellectuals have attempted to strip the school curriculum of anything that would teach senior students about important issues.

Unlike many stories, which become more important the closer you get to them, the problem of small minds in small towns becomes even more urgent the further one draws away from them. Because these crusades aren’t only happening in Hollis. They’re happening all over the state, region, and country.

When I worked on the banned books map I thought that book challenges would be concentrated in certain areas – the South, the Bible Belt, etc – that we elite, effete liberals of the northeast think of, snobbishly, as cultural backwaters. I was wrong. Anti-intellectualism is endemic, and present wherever there are people:



View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2010 in a larger map

A few weeks ago, one of the book banners published a similarly stupid op/ed in the town paper:


To the Editor:

I recently came across a draft of the SAU 41 mission statement. It read like a United Nations charter for global childhood education. There were references to a global society, to a world community, to environmental initiatives, and to philanthropic activity. The students apparently will become stewards of the environment and will appreciate diversity and complexity.

Although training good global citizens is, of course, an admirable goal, I would be more impressed if there had been more emphasis on academics. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that a school’s primary function is the education of its students, not the development of global citizens.

I would suggest that students first learn to be good American citizens, and the first lesson should be why they are so blest to live in this country. In a world full of war, poverty, and starvation, only a relative handful of nations enjoy freedom and prosperity. The United States has enjoyed more freedom and prosperity than any other nation in the history of the world. Millions of people have come to our nation to live a better life, and no other nation has attracted anywhere near the immigrants that we have. Students should understand the reasons why.

Our success derives from our adherence to the Constitution and to capitalism. The prosperous nations around the world are those who have adopted capitalism. The Constitution is unique among world documents in that it guarantees our citizens individual freedoms and liberties. I know that this may not sit well with people more interested in developing global students, but students need to first be stewards of the Constitution and of capitalism. Only then will their special role in the world be clear: to continue to be a shining beacon of hope and encouragement for people living in less fortunate nations.

ALFRED F. CHASE JR.

I wrote the following in response, which was published the next week:


In last week’s issue of The Journal, Alfred F Chase Jr criticized the SAU 41 mission for being too globally minded. A school, he said, should function to educate its students, not to develop global citizens. He then praised capitalism and the Constitution for awhile, before thrillingly concluding that these domestic institutions were the true proper subjects of study so that students might understand their “special role in the world.”

As a proud alumnus of SAU 41 I dispute Mr Chase’s first premise: that a global perspective is incompatible with a proper education. Indeed, as the unresolved internal tensions in Mr Chase’s own letter demonstrate – after all, what is our “special role in the world” if not a function of our global citizenship? – they are in fact inseparable.

When students graduate from SAU 41 the vast majority of them leave home for school or work. Outside of our small, safe, sheltering community, they confront actual problems in the world: problems of the poor, the disadvantaged, the subaltern. And they become members of a broader, interconnected society that operates locally, nationally, and globally.

What are we educating students for if not to prepare them for this world in which they will live? For that matter, what meaningful distinction is there nowadays between “education of students” and “development of global citizens,” beyond a knee-jerk reaction against anything that sounds vaguely un-American?

Mr Chase calls his opinion “old-fashioned.” It isn’t. It is merely ill-considered, with more good snark than good sense. It is of a kind with the sentiment to sanitize our schools of any allergens from the actual world that may have contaminated the curriculum. Both do much more damage to the development of our students than any global education – or banned book – ever could.

Hollis/Brookline is pastoral in its landscape, but it need not be provincial in its perspective. Our small towns should not be small-minded. Whether Mr Chase likes it our not, graduates of SAU 41 will become citizens of a global society. It is the duty of the schools to prepare them for it.

I’ve been encouraged by the hundreds of HBHS alums who have joined a Facebook group to voice their support of teachers and education and against censorship. These issues are small and local, but there are many small localities; fight them where you find them.

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Mapping Banned Books

by on Aug.05, 2009, under general

A friend of mine is working over at American Booksellers for Free Expression helping them prepare for Banned Books Week. In case you are not familiar with Banned Books Week, the ALA sez:

Banned Books Week (BBW): Celebrating the Freedom to Read is observed during the last week of September each year. Observed since 1982, this annual ALA event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to choose what opinions and viewpoints to consume are both met.

The ABFFE has a list of the most challenged books from years past. These are real books that real Americans are trying to ban from real libraries. For most of the books, they provide background information, including where and by whom the book was challenged. There is also a PDF of the most challenged books over the last year or so. No news yet on the most challenged books from 2009, but I’m told that’s coming.

Some of the challenged books are old standbys of censorial aggression – your Huck Finns, your Harry Potters, your Brave New Worlds, and so forth. Some are new to me, like the potentially adorable “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding”, which apparently documents the struggles of a small guinea pig as she learns to adapt to her uncle Bobby getting gay guinea pig married. Others just confuse, bemuse, amuse, and unsettle me, such as the challenge to Esther Drill’s Deal With It, a sex-education novel for girls which was challenged on the grounds of being – and I am not making this up – “happily nonphallocentric.”

These are enlightened times.

Anyway, I’ve created a Google Map to map out the book challenges. I think it might be an interesting exercise to visualize whether there are hotspots of censorship in the country. Anyone can edit the map, so if you’d like to help, feel free to join in. You can either refer to the ABFFE’s detailed list or add your own, but please supplement them with corroborating evidence!

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