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Tech Giants Urged To Explain Their Censorship Tactics By Influential Watchdog Groups

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor

Several influential watchdogs and digital privacy rights groups called on big tech companies Monday to be more transparent about their content moderation tactics.

In doing so, the larger group released a set of standards for powerful websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to follow called The Santa Clara Principles. The guidelines center around three main categories: the quantity of accounts suspended and posts removed (numbers), the communications provided to affected users (notice) and the ability to request a re-examination (appeal).

The coalition includes the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), New America’s Open Technology Institute, the ACLU of Northern California and multiple individual free expression advocates.

While some of the loudest calls against censorship came from conservatives and libertarians, as it appears they are often the most targeted, removal of content also occurs for non-political subjects(RELATED: Cancer Awareness Group Draws Square Breasts For Video After Facebook Censors It)

And some of these organizations don’t seem to care which ideology is most affected by potentially overly aggressive platform policing, especially since they could be considered left-leaning.

“The decisions they make have major consequences for individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and everyone’s ability to access information,” Emma Llansó, director of CDT’s Free Expression Project, said in a statement. “As policymakers around the world focus on how online platforms shape our information environments, it’s crucial to know more about how content moderation happens in practice. We hope that the Santa Clara principles can prompt broader discussions amongst advocacy groups, experts, and platforms across the globe and lead to more transparent and accountable content moderation.”

Facebook — as it faces pressure to do more about content such as hate speech and ostensibly fraudulent news — recently revealed its censorship rules in apparent act of transparency. And whether or not the rules are a sign of openness or intensification, its active enforcement in deciding what is acceptable will likely lead to continued flak for doing too much.

Perhaps in a showing of his true underlying sentiment, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in late March that he’s “fundamentally uncomfortable” deciding if certain content is hate speech or not. Regardless, perhaps at least partially due to a yielding to lawmakers and portions of the public, the wunderkind expressed later that he wants artificial intelligence to take the lead on monitoring vitriolic communications and subject matter because there is way too much for human moderators to catch, and since it may be less liable to subjectivity — although algorithms can be faulty and a reflection of their creators.

But even with AI as the primary decider, The Santa Clara Principles suggest that a quarterly report should be made in an “openly licensed, machine-readable format.”

“Content takedown and account deactivation practices can have a profound effect on the lives and work of individuals in different parts of the world,” said Jillian York, EFF’s director for international freedom of expression. “The companies removing online speech should be up front about their content policing policies. Users are being kept in the dark, voices that should be heard are being silenced forever by automation, and that must change.”

Facebook appears to be put in a difficult situation. But acquiescing to the demands of those calling for further removal of certain content they respectively deem inappropriate will inevitably lead to complaints of censorship. Which it favors more — a platform with a free expression ethos, or one that is squeaky clean — will manifest itself in months to come, if it hasn’t already, even if Facebook and its leader think finding a healthy balance is achievable.

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