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.

A pro-union march in 2014. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The legacy of sectarianism is still poisoning the air of Scotland

Ruth Davidson has reinstated two Stirling councillors who posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media. That this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles.

Kenny Dalglish was a bluenose: as a boy in the mid-60s, he and his father would make the short journey to Ibrox to cheer on Rangers, then Scotland’s most successful team. With the football allegiance came a cultural one, too. Or, probably, the other way round.

Wee Kenny could play a bit, obviously, and dreamed that his beloved Gers would sign him up. But, as Richard T Kelly writes in Keegan and Dalglish, his enjoyable new double biography of the two footballing greats, "Rangers had a certain preference for big lads, or else lads with an obvious turn of pace; and Dalglish, despite his promise, had neither of those easy attributes."

Rangers’ loss was Celtic’s gain, but it took some effort. The former, writes Kelly, "was the club of the Queen, the Union, Scotland’s Protestant majority… founded by Freemasons and members of the Orange Order, strongly tied to the shipyards of Govan. Glasgow Celtic was the team of Irish Catholic patriots, revolutionary Fenians and Home Rulers, begun as a charitable organisation… a means to bolster the faith and keep the flock out of the clutches of Protestant soup kitchens. It was going to be a serious step across a threshold for Dalglish to accept the overtures of Celtic."

In the end, Jock Stein dispatched his number two, the unhelpfully named Sean Fallon, to meet the young starlet’s family. "Fallon entered a domestic environment he felt to be 'a bit tense' -  a Rangers house, a lion’s den, if you will. Fallon even picked up the sense that Bill [Dalglish’s father] might rather his son pursue [an] apprenticeship in joinery."

The deal was done ("My dream was to become a professional footballer – the location was just a detail," Dalglish would later say) and the most gifted player Scotland has ever produced went on to make his reputation kitted out in green and white stripes rather than royal blue -  a quirk of those difficult times for which those of us classed as Fenian bastards rather than Orange bastards will be forever grateful.

Growing up in west and central Scotland, it was hard to avoid being designated as one type of bastard or the other, even if you supported a team outwith the Old Firm or had no interest in football at all. Thanks to 19th century immigration, the terrible religio-political divide of Ulster was the dominant cultural force even in Stirling, the town around 25 miles from Glasgow where I grew up and where I now live again. If you went to the Catholic school, as I did, you were a Fenian; if you went to the Proddy (officially, non-demominational) school, you were a Hun. You mostly hung around with your own, and youthful animosity and occasional violence was largely directed across the religious barricades. We knew the IRA slogans and the words to the Irish rebel songs; they had the UVF and the Red Hand of Ulster. We went to the Cubs, they went to the Boys’ Brigade. We got used to the Orange Walks delivering an extra-loud thump on the drums as they passed the chapel inside which we were performing our obligatory Sunday observance.

At the time – around the early and mid 80s – such pursuit of identity might not have been much more than a juvenile game, but it was part of something more serious. It was still the case that Catholics were unemployable in significant Scottish industries – "which school did you got to, son?" was the killer interview question if your answer began with "Saint". This included the media: in the late 90s, when I joined the Daily Record – the "Daily Ranger" to Celtic fans (its Sunday sister, the Sunday Mail, was known to Rangers fans as the "Sunday Liam") – vestiges of this prejudice, and the anecdotes that proved it, were still in the air.

The climate is undoubtedly better now. Secularisation has played its part - my own daughters attend non-denominational schools – even if, as the sportswriter Simon Kuper has observed, many are "not about to give up their ancient traditions just because they no longer believe in God". The peace process in Northern Ireland and important gestures such as the late public friendship between Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness have made a difference. And I suppose the collapse of Rangers as a footballing force, amid financial corruption that saw them dumped into the bottom tier of Scottish football, helped.

But the sensitivity remains. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum broke down in part across tribal lines, with many Celtic supporters, once Labour, now SNP, loudly backing a Yes vote, while Rangers fans were on the No side. The prospect of Brexit creating a significant border between the north and south of Ireland, which could inflame recently and shallowly buried tensions, makes one shudder. And even locally, the old enmities continue to raise their grubby heads. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is currently taking flak for allowing the reinstatement of two Stirling councillors who had posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media prior to their election. The pair have apologised and agreed to take part in diversity training, but I confess that this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles. The rawness remains.

That this is so was brought to me a few years ago when I filed a column containing the word ‘sectarianism’ to a Scottish newspaper. Though the context had nothing to do with Catholic/Protestant or Celtic/Rangers, the editor asked me to remove it. "It’ll be deliberately misunderstood by one side or the other, and probably both," he said. "It’s not worth the hassle. In Scotland I’m afraid it never is."

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).