We can't crowdsource the right to free speech

The BBFC's plan to put content flags on online video could work – but crowd-sourcing censorship isn't the right way to do it.

The debate over protecting children from unsuitable web content has given rise to a novel proposal for content to be rated by users, with the resulting votes going to determine the suitability of the content. Plans are reported to be underway for a traffic light age rating system for user generated videos, on which the British Board of Film Classification and its Dutch equivalent are working with service providers and government. How this will work in practice has not yet been announced but dangers for freedom of expression lurk in relying too heavily on the wisdom of the crowd.

The timing suggests that the idea may be related to the Prime Minster's proposal that households should be able to control their access to adult content online by switching on a simple filter. One of the criticisms levelled at filtering is that to be effective it will have to be a relatively blunt instrument and block both the inoffensive and the inappropriate, with a potential impact on freedom of expression. Crowd-sourced age rating of content is at first sight both appealingly simple and potentially better, allowing greater discernment between content which really is adult and that which a machine might consider so. Red, amber and green ratings will reportedly be arrived at through a combination of the rating applied by the work's contributor and how the audience reacts.

The web inevitably makes available some content which is unsuitable or inappropriate for children to access. Some of this will be illegal, but much more will not, or may be suitable say for over 13s or over 16s only. A traffic light system may therefore struggle to distinguish between these and runs the risk of imposing the strictest warning on masses of content by default.

A greater concern however, is how the new system will guard against becoming a tool to enable prejudices of one kind or another to be played out. The system can only operate if it is the crowd's decision which counts - the reason this is even being considered is because there is too much content for a regulator or platform to consider. Relying on the crowd assumes that a collective consciousness emerges from the great mass of web users and their shared values, rather than a set of subjective reactions. This is a dangerous assumption. As a recent MIT study reported in Science suggests, the "wisdom" of the crowd may be a myth, its mentality more akin to that of a mob or herd. 

A huge amount of content which some viewers may be strongly, even violently, opposed to can be found online. However, such content may well not be illegal, or even be the sort of content that a body such as the BBFC would normally feel the need to apply adult age ratings to - religious teachings for example. Once crowd or mob has control, how will the system ensure it cannot be hijacked to serve the values of one interest group over another? Very few votes may be enough for any piece of video content to be tagged as unsuitable. 

Even then, merely adding a red traffic light rating to a piece of content may not by itself do much harm. But what if the ratings are not a simple visual warning but information which determines whether that piece of content is made available or not?

In controlling what content is made available, European governments' room for manoeuvre is limited. EU law enshrines protection for freedom of expression. Where Member States take measures which affect users' access to and use of services and applications over electronic networks, they have to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms. Any restrictions need to satisfy tests of being appropriate, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. Determining the suitability of content has, until now, been the preserve of carefully chosen, neutral regulators, applying a set of agreed principles. Would mandating a system of crowd-sourced suitability ratings from anonymous web users around the world satisfy these tests? Without being able to ensure that the system could not be hijacked, it may struggle to do so.

So, encouraging ISPs to take voluntary steps may assist governments in assuaging the most vocal demands for action, while avoiding a difficult debate over internet regulation. But any approved scheme will need safeguards over whether the traffic lights become the basis for automated blocking of content which a household or ISP can apply at the flick of a switch. Once an appealingly simple idea like this takes hold, it may not be readily dropped and may go on to have profound effects on what content is made available in the majority of households in this country.

The BBFC.

Mark Owen is a partner at international law firm Taylor Wessing. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle