Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How "Brand Safety" and National Security are Driving Internet Surveillance and Censorship

Last week I posted a blog article titled, Censorship as Security

That post looks at how censorship is being practiced in the name of security, primarily through its automation by social media platforms such as Facebook.

Today the Wall Street Journal had an article addressing large corporations’ pull-back from advertising on Youtube and Google because of their concern about “brand safety"
Lara O'Reilly & Jack Nicas (June 21, 2017). YouTube ad mess divides brands. The Wall Street Journal, B1, B2, 
The problem of brand safety stems from social media’s unwitting combination of controversial video content with name brand advertising.

The Guardian has a story addressing advertisers’ concerns about YouTube & Google that discloses “inconsistencies” in how Google monitors content, reflecting the politics of what counts as controversial:
Olivia Solon (march 21, 2017) 'I can’t trust YouTube any more': creators speak out in Google advertising row. The Guardian,

Google’s decision-making process over which YouTube videos are deemed “advertiser friendly” faces scrutiny from both brands and creators, highlighting once again the challenge of large-scale moderation.

The company last week pledged to change its advertising policies after several big brands pulled their budgets from YouTube following an investigation that revealed their ads were shown alongside extremist content, such as videos promoting terrorism or antisemitism.
… Google currently uses a mixture of automated screening and human moderation to police its video sharing platform and to ensure that ads are only placed against appropriate content. Videos considered “not advertiser-friendly” include those that are sexually suggestive, violent, contain foul language, promote drug use or deal with controversial topics such as war, political conflict and natural disasters.
So, Google, Youtube, and other social media platforms are trying to figure out how to develop protocols to avoid matching "controversial" content with their advertisers’ persuasive messaging.

Advertisers are demanding greater control over how these platforms match ad with content and are pressing for independent monitoring.

One can certainly understand these concerns but what alarms me are the likely consequences of the new “command and control” Internet regime.

Internet Command and Control

1. The new command and control Internet regime is first and foremost monetized.

For example, the Internet is being fully monetized with the end of net neutrality, which is being pursued by Trump and the telecommunication industry, as explained here:
Sergey Denisenko Feb 20, 2017 The implications of the end of net neutrality
2.  Secondarily, web content will be censored before it is actually posted, sanitizing it from images or words that are designated as troubling, as illustrated by Facebook’s efforts in this regard:
Sam Schechner. (2017, June 15). Facebook Boosts AI to Block Terrorist Propaganda. The Wall Street Journal,
New software is tasked with identifying videos, photos, language and users that need to be removed, at times without human moderators.
3.  Third, search results will be filtered using criteria that separate out information coded as “true” from information coded as “fake” as Google and other engines incorporate criteria such as “truthiness” (see article).

Google’s first effort to evaluate truthfulness of sites was PageRank, according to this interesting article in CNN
Ivana Kottasova (2015, March 4). The truth, according to Google. CNN Money

The company is figuring out how to rank websites by the veracity of their content. The more truthful the page, the higher up it would appear in search results.

Google (GOOG) currently sorts search results based on criteria such as the number of links pointing at the website, the amount of time users spend on it, as well as the prominence of its social media profile.

The algorithm, named PageRank after Google co-founder Larry Page, is supposed to rank websites based on their reputation.
The problem with this strategy is that it measured popularity over quality. So, Google developed a new algorithm, whose current status is not entirely clear, as described further down in the same article:
To fix the problem, Google has come up with a new truth-seeking algorithm, describing it in a research paper first reported by New Scientist. So how would it work? The new algorithm draws on Google's "Knowledge Vault" -- a collection of 2.8 billion facts extracted from the Internet.  By checking pages against that database, and cross-referencing related facts, the research team believes the algorithm could assign each page a truth score. Pages with a high proportion of false claims would be bumped down in the search results. (here)
You can read more about Google’s Knowledge Vault here:

4. Finally, Google and other search engines may have little choice concerning development and deployment of more automated censorship in posted content and search results.

US H.R.5181 - Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016114th Congress (2015-2016), simultaneously penalizes providers for “fake news” and promotes production and dissemination of government “fact-based” narratives to counter fake news that escapes the newly emerging filtering devices.

The lack aims to "develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda and assert leadership in developing a fact-based strategic narrative" AND promoting a free press in countries vulnerable to foreign disinformation, as illustrated in this excerpt from the bill:
(4) the challenge of countering disinformation extends beyond effective strategic communications and public diplomacy, requiring a whole-of-government approach leveraging all elements of national power;

(5) the United States Government should develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda and assert leadership in developing a fact-based strategic narrative; and

(6) an important element of this strategy should be to protect and promote a free, healthy, and independent press in countries vulnerable to foreign disinformation.
I very much worry that this injunction to code true/false and censor information delegated to the latter category will quickly end diversity of expression, especially around "controversial" topics such as war, disaster, and conflict.

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