July 18, 2019

Choosing Between Content Moderation Interventions

How can we design remedies for content “violations” online?

Speaking today at CITP is Eric Goldman (@ericgoldman), a professor of law and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute, at Santa Clara University School of Law. Before he became a full-time academic in 2002, Eric practiced Internet law for eight years in the Silicon Valley. His research and teaching focuses on Internet, IP and advertising law topics, and he blogs on these topics at the Technology & Marketing Law Blog.

Eric reminds us that content moderation questions are front page stories every week. Lawmakers and tech companies are wondering how to create a world where everyone can have their say, people have a chance to hear from them, and people are protected from harms.

Decisions about content moderation depend on a set of questions, says Eric:

“What rules govern online content?” “Who creates those rules? Who adjudicates rule violations?” Eric is most interested in a final question: “what consequences are imposed for rule violations?

So what do should we do once a content violation has been observed? The traditional view is to delete the content or account or to keep the content and account. For example, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, platforms are required to “remove or disable access to” copyrighted material. It allows no option less than removing the material from visibility. The DMCA also specifies two other remedies: terminating “repeat infringers” and issue subpoenas to identify/unmask alleged infringers. Overall however, the primary intervention is to remove things, and there’s no lesser action

Next Eric, tells us about civil society principles that adopt a similar idea of removal as the primary remedy. For example, the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability assume that removal is the one available intervention, but that it should be necessary, proportional, and adopt “the least restrictive technical means.” Similarly, the Santa Clara Principles assume that removal is the one available option.

Eric reminds us that there are many remedies between removal and keeping content. Why should we pay attention to them? With a wider range of options, we can (a) avoid collateral damage from overbroad remedies and develop a (b) broader remedy toolkit to match the needs of different communities. With a wider palette of options, we would also need principles for choosing between those remedies. Eric wants to be able to suggest options that regulators or platforms have at their disposal when making policy decisions.

To illustrate the value of being able to differentiate between remedies, Eric talks about communities that have rich sets of rules with a range of consequences other than full approval or removal, such as churches, fraternities, and sports leagues.

Eric then offers us a taxonomy of remedies, drawn from examples in use online: (a) content restrictions, (b) account restrictions, (c) visibility reductions, (d) financial levers, and (e) other.

Eric asks: once we have listed remedies, how could we possibly choose among them? Eric talks about different theories for choosing – and he doesn’t think that those models are useful for this conversation. Furthermore, conversations about government-imposed remedies are different from internet content violations.

Unlike internet content policies, says Eric, government remedies:

  • are determined by elected officials
  • funded by taxes
  • non-compliance is enforced by police power
  • some remedies are only available to the government (like jail/death)
  • are subject to constitutional limits

Finally, Eric shares some early thoughts about how to choose among possible remedies:

  • Remedy selection manifests a service’s normative priorities, which differ
  • Possible questions to ask when choosing among remedies:
    • How bad is the rule violation?
    • How confident is the service that the rule was actually violated?
    • How open is the community?
    • How will the remedy affect other community members?
    • How to balance between behavior conformance with user engagement?
  • Site design can prevent violations
    • Educate and socialize contributors (for example)
  • Services with only binary remedies aren’t well-positioned to solve problems, and maybe other actors are in a better position
  • Typically, private remedies are better than judicially imposed remedies, but at cost of due process
  • Remedies should be necessary & proportionate
  • Remedies should empower users to choose for themselves what to do

OpenPrecincts: Can Citizen Science Improve Gerrymandering Reform?

How the American public understand gerrymandering and collect data that could lead to fairer, more representative voting districts across the US?

Speaking today at CITP are Ben Williams and Hannah Wheelen of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, part of a team with Sam Wang, William Adler, Steve Birnbaum, Rick Ober, and James Turk. Ben is the lead coordinator for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s research and organizational partnerships. Hannah, who is also speaking, coordinates the collection of voting precinct boundary information.

What’s Gerrymandering and Why Does it Matter?

Ben opens by explaining what gerrymandering is and why it matters. Reapportionment is a process by which congressional districts are allocated to the states after each decennial census. The process of redrawing those lines is called redistricting. When redistricting happens, politicians sometimes engage in gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing the lines to benefit a particular party– something that is common behavior by all parties.

Who has the power to redistrict federal lines? Depending on state law, redistricting is done by by different parties, who have different kinds of

  • independent commissions who make the decisions, independently from the politicians affected by it
  • advisory commissions who advise a legislature but have no decision-making power
  • politician or political appointees
  • state legislatures

Ben tells us that gerrymandering has been part of US democracy ever since the first congress. He tells us about Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia, who redrew the lines to try to favor James Monroe over James Madison. The term came into use in the 19th century, and it has remained common since then.

Why Do People Care About Gerrymandering And What Can We Do About It?

Ben tells us about the Tea Party Wave in 2010, when Republicans announced in the Wall Street Journal a systematic plan, called REDMAP, to redraw districts to establish a majority for republicans in the US for a decade. Democrats have also done similar things on a smaller scale. Since then, the designer of the REDMAP plan has become an advocate for reform, says Ben.

How do we solve gerrymandering if the point is that politicians use it to establish their power and are unlikely to give it up? Ben describes three structures:

  • Create independent commissions to draw the lines. Ballot initiatives in MI, CO, UT, and MO and state legislative action (VA) have put commissions in place.
  • Require governors to approve the plan, and give the governor the capcity to refer district lines to courts (WI, MD)
  • State supreme courts (PA, NC?)

These structures have been achieved in some states, through a variety of means: litigation, and through political campaigns. Ben also hopes that if citizens can learn to recognize gerrymandering, they can spot it and organize to respond as needed.

Decisions and controversies about gerrymandering need reliable evidence, especially at times when different sides bring their own experts to a conversation. Ben describes the projects that have been done so far, summarized the recent paper, “An Antidote for Gobbledygook: Organizing the Judge’s Partisan Gerrymandering Toolkit into a Two-Part Framework.” He also mentions the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts and MIT and work by Procaccia and Pegden at Carnegie Mellon.

Citizen Science Solutions to the Bad Data Problem in Redistricting Accountability

These many tools have opened new capacities for citizens to have an informed voice on redistricting conversations. Unfortunately, all of these projects rely on precinct level data on the geography of voting precincts and vote counts at a precinct level. Hannah talks to us about the challenge of contacting thousands of counties for precinct-level voting data. In many cases, national datasets of voter behavior are actually wrong– when you check the paper records held by local areas, you find that the boundaries are often wrong. Worse, errors are so common that gerrymandering datasets could easily produce mistaken outcomes. With too many errors for researchers to untangle, how can these data tools be useful?

Might local citizens be able to contribute to a high quality national dataset about voting precincts, and then use that data to hold politicians accountable? Hannah tells us about OpenPrecincts, a citizen science project by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to organize the public to create accurate datasets about voter records. Hannah tells us about the many grassroots organizations that they are hoping to empower to collect data for their entire state.

The Trust Architecture of Blockchain: Kevin Werbach at CITP

In 2009, bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakomoto argued that it was “a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust.”

That’s not true, according to today’s CITP’s speaker Kevin Werbach (@kwerb), a professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School at UPenn. Kevin is author of a new book with MIT Press, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust.

A world-renowned expert on emerging technology, Kevin examines business and policy implications of developments such as broadband, big data, gamification, and blockchain. Kevin served on the Obama Administration’s Presidential Transition Team, founded the Supernova Group (a technology conference and consulting firm) and helped develop the U.S. approach to internet policy during the Clinton Administration.

Blockchain does actually rely on trust, says Kevin. He tells us the story of the cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX, who claimed that millions of dollars in cryptocurrency were lost when their CEO passed away. While whole story was more complex, Kevin says, it reveals how much bitcoin transactions rely on many kinds of trust.

Rather than removing the need for trust, blockchain offers a new architecture of trust compared to previous models. Peer to peer trust is based on personal relationships.  Leviathan trust, described by Hobbes, is a social contract with the state, which then has the power to enforce private agreements between people. The power of the state makes us more trusting in the private relationships– if you trust the state and if the legal system works. Intermediary trust involves a central entity that manages transactions between people

Blockchain is a new kind of trust, says Kevin. With blockchain trust, you can trust the ledger without (so it seems) trusting any actor to validate it. For this to work, transactions need to be very hard to change without central control – if anyone had the power to make changes, you would have to trust them.

Why would anyone value the blockchain? Blockchain minimizes the need for certain kinds of trust: removing single points of failure, reducing risks of monopoly, and reduces friction from the intermediation. Blockchain also expands trust by minimizing reconciliation, carries out automated execution, and increases the auditability of records.

What could possibly go wrong? Even if the blockchain ledger is auditable and trustworthy, the transaction record isn’t the whole system. Kevin points out that 80% of all bitcoin users rely on centralized key storage. He also reported figures that 20-80% of all Initial Coin Offerings were fraudulent.

Kevin tells us about “Vlad’s conundrum”- there’s a direct conflict between the design of the blockchain system and any regulatory model. The blockchain doesn’t know the difference between transactions, and there’s no entity that can say “no, that’s not okay.” Kevin tells us about the use of the blockchain for money laundering and financing terrorism. He also tells us about the challenge of moderating child pornography data that has been distributed across the blockchain- exposing every bitcoin node to legal risks.

None of these risks are as simple as they seem. Legal enforcement is carried out by humans who often consider intent. Simply possessing digital bits that represent child pornography data will not doom bitcoin. Furthermore, systems are less decentralized or anonymous than they appear. Regulations about parts of the system at the edges and endpoints of the blockchain can promote trust and innovation. Regulators have often been able to pull systems apart, find the involved parties, and hold actors accountable.

Kevin argues that designers of blockchain systems have to manage three trade-offs. Trust, freedom of action, and convenience. Any designer of a system will have to make hard choices about the tradeoffs among each of these factors.

aCiting Vili Lehdonvirta’s blockchain paradox, Kevin tells us several stories about ways that centralized governance processes managed serious problems and fraud in blockchain systems that would have been problems if governance had purely been decentralized.  Kevin also describes technical mechanisms for governance: voting systems, special kinds of contracts, arbitration schemes, and dispute resolution processes

Overall, Kevin tells us that blockchain governance comes back to trust– which shapes how we act with confidence in circumstances of uncertainty and vulnerability.