“Ghosting,” Other Shadowy Internet Censorship Practices Must Be Rejected and Legal Consequences Imposed
The internet has been a revolutionary force that has steadily been transforming the societies and economies of the world. The internet has changed how mankind interacts by opening channels for the free flow of information and free communication of people across the globe. Propaganda, misinformation, trolling, and “fake news” scandals, among other issues, have shattered the utopia fantasy of the internet by revealing how a tool for enlightenment can be hijacked to hack public perception, e.g. the Russian US Election Hacking Scandal. Although these issues need addressed, censorship in one form or another has become the answer. Censorship is, however, the goal of those who abuse the internet against free Peoples and societies, so censorship cannot be used to fight this abuse.
Where a lack of publicly available information in the past empowered and enriched those who had the information, censorship of the internet empowers and enriches those who decide what information is seen today. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and many others created their various services to help internet users find information in the chaos of the internet and facilitate user interactions. The usefulness of their services, which users can generally use without paying an upfront access fee, have made these technology firms the gateways of the free internet. Today, the internet continues to be a place where information is freely available, but these gateways control what information the vast majority of internet users find. In practice, they have the power to censor the web.
As the largest organizer of information on the web and social media provider, Alphabet, the umbrella company that Google operates under, is probably the most powerful internet gateway. As such, the censorship policies of Alphabet and its subdivisions require heavy scrutiny. Youtube, for example, is now known to be utilizing over 100 Nongovernmental organizations and government agencies as “trusted flaggers” to monitor content for things like extremist propaganda. Confidentiality agreement prevent these trusted flaggers from being identified and their actions scrutinized. This creates a situation where politically biased organization and employees of these organization are given the power to mass flag content they disagree with.
The Anti-Defamation League, for example, is known to be a trusted flagger, but it is also known to have a clear pro-Israel bias. Israel is one of the most prominent perpetrator of censorship on the planet. The Israel government does not tolerate criticism of Israel due to fear that criticism with cost Israel support from the US government and unite those who are opposed to the mistreatment of the Palestinian People. This criticism alone is enough to trigger condemnation from hardliner factions within Israel and supporters of Israel. That said, conservative-leaning factions also have concerns with Youtube’s practices, because most of the other organizations used as trusted flaggers are liberal-leaning. Recognizing the volume of content being screened, as well as the fact Youtube employees also have their own bias, it is likely a great amount of legitimate content will be deleted.
Perhaps one of the most insidious forms of censorship on the internet is the practice “shawdow banning.” Known by a host of other names including “stealth banning” and “ghosting,” it is the practice of making a user's contributions to an internet community less prominent or less visible to other members of the service. The goal is to block the content of the “problem” user without the offending user ever knowing. Although originally intended to reduce spam, legitimate, yet controversial, users can easily become targets of biased ghosters and the confirmation bias of communities. Although most social media platforms do not recognize the practice, Reddit and Craiglist are known to use the practice while Twitter has been known to use it and Google is suspected of using it.
There are, of course, other ways of ghosting “problem” content other than targeting users on social media, e.g. search engine algorithms that neutralize SEO, but the consequences are the same. When the legitimate content of legitimate users is censored, other users cannot readily access the content and information they have provided, thus they cannot be informed of any novel insights or counterarguments. Politically, this means popular, yet wrong, views go unchallenged and those who share popular views are promoted above those who upset conventional thinking. In terms of public policy, alternative solutions are censored out of existence or kept from the light of day when they are need. For those who are censored, there is a terrible personal and economic cost. The “new economy” is the internet economy, so censorship truly means starving people of financial gain and destroying fledgling businesses.
Internet giants like Google and Facebook need to step carefully when it comes to addressing issues like scam, propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation. They must consider who their policies are empowering and who they are disempowering. They should avoid adopting practices that simply rely on the input of a trusted flagger, no matter how trustworthy. They should also embrace transparency by rejecting practices that keep their censorship in the darkness. To ensure the gateways of the internet keep the channels of the internet truly free, proper governance is also needed. Because there are social and economic consequences to censorship, there should be legal and economic consequences for internet companies that wrong users. Even if the products of these companies are free, they do not own the internet and they cannot be allowed to act with impunity as though they do.
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