A thought experiment on subjectively harmful content moderation

UK policy
Alan Turing's apple, Sackville Gardens, May 2021. Love you Manchester.

In my professional work, the UK’s draft Online Safety Bill is currently taking up most of my time. There’s as much going on behind the scenes as there is going on publicly, including the considerable writing, blogging, and media quotes I’m doing on the topic (and there’s a lot more to come over the next few weeks).

It’s not humanly possible for me to attend every external meeting, roundtable, and event on the Bill, whether it has been put together by its creators, its enablers, or its foes. More often than not, however, my absence misses nothing. This week I was informed that yet another lavishly exalted event on the Bill was, essentially, three hours of talking heads ranting about (you guessed it) Facebook and WhatsApp.

Plus ça change.

I’ve written before about how utterly infuriating it is to be dealing with a Bill which will sweep in everything – from encrypted financial transactions to senior management arrests to mandatory age verification for everyone, not to mention sweeping constraints on our freedom of expression, collateral censorship, and mandatory privatised speech policing – and yet as far as policymakers and the media are concerned, this Bill is about just one thing (abuse on social media) and one company’s suite of products.

And, as anyone who works in policy will tell you, that’s not an exaggeration. We come in to these events, having done our homework and our analysis and our legal briefings, wanting to talk about life, the universe, and everything in it, and the people on the other end of the table want to rant and obssess over one company and one product and one guy.

The situation is so bad that I dubbed it Facebook Derangement Syndrome, after a meeting which left me unsure whether to try to nudge the agenda along or seek psychiatric help for the government representatives in it.

Now, given what’s in the Bill and what its risks are, the obsession with one company, one product, and one guy isn’t just a timewaster for policy folk. It is hijacking the conversation, misdirecting it with propaganda and rhetoric, and preventing the vital dialogue which should be happening from taking place.

Oh, and that obsession is also about to take down the free and open web, privacy, freedom of expression, secure encrypted communications, and internet commerce as collateral damage. That too.

So let me put it this way: everyone who works in tech policy – be it civil society, business and innovation, or academia – finds Facebook Derangement Syndrome a subjective harm.

It makes us very irritated and causes us to go off in a huff, which is very difficult when you’re not allowed to go anywhere.

Therefore, I have decided to do something about it.

In a Code of Practice, which I drafted over some faux-punk wank microbrew, I have laid out the content moderation guidelines for any future policy discussions on the Online Safety Bill. These guidelines reflect the need to not cause subjective harm to we vulnerable policy professionals at a delicate time in our cognitive development.

These rules, which all MPs, staff, civil servants, policymakers, think tank employees, and journalists must follow, lest they be subjected to <blink>hefty fines and penalties</blink>, work as follows:

  1. In any public or private discussions of the Online Safety Bill, you are not permitted to say, write, invoke, or name any of the following terms:
    Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook Messenger, TikTok, Twitter, Amazon, or Google.
  2. In any public or private discussions of the Online Safety Bill, you are not permitted to say, write, invoke, or name any executive or senior manager within any one of these companies. Especially if they are American.
  3. In any public or private discussions of the Online Safety Bill, you are not permitted to quote any form of state-backed disinformation about the Bill, including factually incorrect rhetoric such as “the Bill is about social media platforms” or “the bill is about online abuse.”

“But but but what frwwwpwppptaff”, splutter your policy staffers, who are all 23 years old and have no comprehension that they are advising you to regulate the entire internet around one company because they don’t know any other internet.

“…” gawp MPs who have built careers out of FDS and didn’t make a plan B.

As for you?

“So much for freedom of speech!” you say.

Yes. That is exactly the point here, hen.

And if that point is lost on you, then what exactly do you think you’re about to legislate here?

Children dancing in a circle under a rainbow on a meadow located in the safest place in the world to be online?

No. You’re voting for a Bill that will impose state control and privatised censorship onto all of us, wherever we choose to speak, whatever we choose to say, over the topics that you find unacceptable.

That will not just work in one direction. As political winds shift, the rules you set for others will be used on you.

So there’s no time like the present, then, to demonstrate your empathy with others, and your understanding of the legislation that is in front of you, by self-censoring your own speech which causes subjective harm to others.

On you go, then. Start now.

After all, I’ve always believed that if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. And if you’re about to lobby, legislate, and vote in favour of a Bill which will eliminate other people’s ability to talk the talk, you’d better be prepared to go first.

The Author

We are people of enormous power and influence over the open web. I empower digital professionals to use that power wisely. I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. This is my personal site, and does not reflect the work or opinions of my employer.