User-generated censorship

Just as the Web is making it easier for crowds to collaborate, the Web is also making it simple for mobs to crush free expression
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annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION There's a new kind of censorship online, and it's coming from the grassroots. Thanks to new, collaborative, social media networks, it's easier than ever for people to get together and destroy freedom of expression. They're going DIY from the bottom up — instead of the way old-school censors used to do it, from the top down. Call it user-generated censorship.

Now that anyone with access to a computer and a network connection can post almost anything they want online for free, it's also increasingly the case that anyone with computer access and a few friends can remove anything they want online. And they do it using the same software tools.

Here's how it works: let's say you're a community activist who has some pretty vehement opinions about your city government. You go to Blogger.com, which is owned by Google, and create a free blog called Why the Municipal Government in Crappy City Sucks. Of course, a bunch of people in Crappy City disagree with you — and maybe even hate you personally. So instead of making mean comments on your blog, they decide to shut it down.

At the top of your Blogger blog, there is a little button that says
"flag this blog." When somebody hits that button, it sends a message to Google that somebody thinks the content on your blog is "inappropriate" in some way. If you get enough flags, Google will shut down your blog. In theory, this button would only be used to flag illegal stuff or spam. But there's nothing stopping your enemies in town from getting together an online posse to click the button a bunch of times. Eventually, your blog will be flagged enough times that Google will take action.

And this is where things get interesting. Google has the option of simply shutting down your access to the blog. They rarely do that, though, unless it's a situation where your blog is full of illegal content, like copyright-infringing videos. Generally what Google does if you get a lot of flags is make your blog impossible to find. Nobody will be able to find it if they search Blogger or Google. The only people who will find it are people who already know about it and have the exact URL.

This is censorship, user-generated style. And it works because the only way to be seen in a giant network of user-generated content like Blogger (or MySpace, or Flickr, or any number of others) is to be searchable. If you want to get the word out about Crappy City online, you need for people searching Google for "Crappy City" to find your blog and learn about all the bad things going on there. What good is your free speech if nobody can find it?

Most sites that have user-generated content, like photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube, use a system of flags similar to Blogger's that allow users to censor each other. Sometimes you have to pick a good reason why you are flagging content — YouTube offers you a drop-down menu with about 20 choices — and sometimes you just flag it as "unsafe" or "inappropriate." Generally, most sites respond to flagging the same way: they make the flagged stuff unsearchable and unfindable.

Censorship isn't working the old-fashioned way. Your videos and blogs aren't being removed. They're simply being hidden in the deluge of user-generated information. To be unsearchable on the Web is, in a very real sense, to be censored. But you're not being censored by an authority from on high. You're being censored by the mob.

That's why I find myself rolling my eyes when I hear people getting excited about "the wisdom of crowds" and "crowdsourcing" and all that crap. Sure, crowds can be wise and they can get a lot of work done. But they also can also be destructive, cruel, and stupid. They can prevent work from being done as easily as they can make it easier.

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