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Substack's moderation rules, 2020 in review, and lobbyists-for-hire

The week in content moderation - edition #93

Welcome to Everything in Moderation, your weekly newsletter about content moderation set off brightly into the night's sky by me, Ben Whitelaw.

A very happy new year to you all. Thanks for subscribing and supporting during 2020. Here's hoping the next 12 months are at least a modicum better than the last 12.

Here's what you need to know going into 2021 — BW

📜 Policies - company guidelines and speech regulation

There isn't much coming out of Brussels or Westminster while policymakers are on holiday but that hasn't stopped some countries making moves to introduce new online speech legislation. Russia announced just before Christmas that it planned to force social media companies to remove banned content (Russian government site) while Irish ministers are also working towards making online hate speech a crime and to make the distribution of hate speech via sharing or retweeting a separate offence.

Some good news (at last): The Santa Clara Principles — the set of smart transparency recommendations drawn up by the EFF and other experts for platforms in 2018 — looks like it will be getting beefed up in 2021. A report is being prepared following an open submission process which received over 40 recommendations from more than 10 countries, according to a recent post by EFF director, Jillian C. York. Of the dominant digital platforms, only Reddit has so far endorsed and implemented the principles so there is lots of work for EFF and its partners to do.

💡 Products - features and functionality

Remember Chatroulette, the spin-the-wheel, take-a-chance video site that boomed in 2009 but faded after attracting, well, lots of naked blokes? It’s back and, according to Wired, is reaping the benefits of an improved moderation strategy.

A new team hired in early 2019, including its first community manager, clearly helped but the big change was the switch to Hive, an artificial intelligence technology that has ‘reduce(d) the number of conversations with inappropriate content by 75%.' Human moderators based in Switzerland and Russia also assist with borderline calls and the whole thing is a hopeful read of what happens when you prioritise moderation during product development.

💬 Platforms - dominant digital platforms

Substack, the fast-growing newsletter company, finally outlined its approach to content moderation after weeks of rumours about what writers could and couldn’t publish on its platform.

In a blog post, the company's three founders try to outline the differences between it and other tech giants and explain how they would rather host ' a contest of ideas' rather than implement a process of over-zealous moderation. Sleeping Giants, the activist organisation, called it an ‘open invitation for Nazis and disinformation peddlers’ so let’s see how it works out.

If you're hungover or putting off going for a jog (like me), I can also recommend the following platform-focused 2020 recap pieces:

👥 People - those shaping the future of content moderation

What's the collective noun for a group of political lobbyists? I like gaggle (it suggests noise and chaos) although The Atlantic, with tongue-in-cheek, suggests 'a bordello' (aka brothel). Either way, UK lobbyists, especially well-connected ones, are in demand among tech companies, according to separate articles in The Times and The Sunday Times (disclaimer: I used to work there).

The revolving door (which I wrote about in the last edition of EiM) is affecting the digital dominant platforms in particular because of mooted regulation both in the UK and in Europe. Expect more job moves in 2021.

🐦 Tweets of note

  • 'For the last fucking time Section 230 is not a "special legal protection afforded to technology companies"' - Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer speaking some home truths.
  • "The public hasn't been given much detail" - MIT professor Dean Eccles on why we shouldn't be too sure about claiming to know what worked (and didn't work) in online speech in 2020.
  • "I’m going to end rage-writing a presentation on content moderation, I can tell" - EFF's Katharine Trendacosta is us all (except mine will be a newsletter).

Everything in Moderation is a weekly newsletter about content moderation and the policies, products, platforms and people shaping its future.