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.

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.