A few days ago, ABC News ran an “investigative” piece called “Group Probes Ease and Danger of Buying Steroids Online.” ABC describes the “group” at issue as “an online watchdog,” the Digital Citizens Alliance. That group determined that some of the millions of available YouTube videos encourage steroid use and that YouTube (which is owned by Google) places ads next to steroid-related videos and search results. They argue that Google and YouTube should be held legally responsible for any illegal content linked or posted.
ABC News could have told the story differently: A Microsoft-backed group led by a public relations firm (but named for an “alliance” of “citizens”) is holding Google & YouTube to a standard that Microsoft fails, while effectively arguing for filtering of the Internet, through appeals to the emotional issue of teenage steroid use.
Let’s begin with the big picture and move to the details of this group.
Filtering the Internet is a terrible idea, even to stop illegal drug sales.
It is awful that teenagers turn to any illegal drugs. But perspective is needed. We know some teenagers buy drugs at school; we don’t shut down schools, we don’t search every student, we don’t monitor everything they say, we don’t require them to get permission from an adult before speaking with one another. We engage in education efforts and responsive actions. We also know that people will use the Internet to communicate about everything from coordinating a democratic revolution and reporting government corruption to idle chit chat to illegal activity.
The Digital Citizens Alliance is actually arguing for a filtered Internet. DCA claims that companies should be liable for any illegal content shared on a site. If Twitter, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others were guilty of the acts of all the slanderers, copyright infringers, fraudsters, conspirators, and drug pushers on their sites, then they would have to filter all the content on their sites. With a billion users, if even 0.1% of them are wrong-doers, then a platform would be liable for one million wrong-doers. They wouldn’t be able to take on the risk of legal action for all those potential wrong-doers. That means these companies would have to filter content in advance. The Digital Citizens Alliance cannot mean that companies simply have to act quickly and take down illegal content once notified; these companies all take down content when it is reported or flagged for violating their terms of service forbidding illegal activity.
The existing rules strike the right balance. For the past 2 decades we have had a set of rules to ensure freedom of expression online while limiting illegal activity. Those rules generally enable companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the New York Times online to carry the speech of millions or billions of people empowering all of us to publish and comment–through tweets, posts, pages and videos, or comments on stories. They are able to carry the speech of so many people because they are not guilty for all illegal content posted by every single person. (The laws include the celebrated 230 of the Communications Decency Act and also 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.) Instead of these companies being liable, the actual wrong-doers are responsible: the slanderers, the sites that traffic in drugs, etc. Recently, the authorities busted an online drug bazaar and a child prostitution ring without having to change the Internet’s magna carta and make tech platforms liable for all the content on their sites. If they were liable, these companies simply would not be able to act as platforms and networks for billions of people. They would have to filter all content in advance and become editors of their platforms, closing opportunities for average speakers.
Companies like Google make huge efforts to remove illegal content. Most platforms for the speech of billions of users have to rely in part on users flagging or reporting content. It’s far more effective and respectful of free expression than attempts to filter through computer algorithms. Go to Twitter: you can “report” every tweet. Check YouTube: every single video has a flag icon. Every piece of content on Facebook can be reported. Considering the number of users and content shared, this flagging is essential. I wrote about this in some detail here. More briefly: one-hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute and that much content can’t be filtered in advance without requiring YouTube to to limit who can post. Googles search engine includes trillions of sites and reflects the web; Google can’t filter them all and shouldn’t have to. In one month alone, however, Google processed over 18 million requests to remove URLs from its search results based on copyright concerns and removed removed 97% of the requested URLs from July 2011 to December 2011. Google also makes efforts to ensure ads are not placed alongside illegal content. (I provide the sources in the other post.)
The Digital Citizens Alliance is a Microsoft-backed group, which is the only reason Microsoft is not their target.
This is an old story. The story is Microsoft’s ongoing strategy of attacking Google in slanted advertisements and through political PR efforts. It’s also the story, it seems, of the copyright industry, which has long argued, in various ways, for pre-filtering all content, including when it attempted to push an infamous censorship bill called SOPA.
DCA is backed by Microsoft and not a citizens alliance.
The Digital Citizens Alliance is not an actual alliance of citizens, but instead is known to be backed by Microsoft. Techdirt called DCA an obvious “astroturf” group not a real “grassroots” group. Two of DCA’s three staff members are employees of the DC public relations firm, 463 Communications (Tom Galvin and Dan Palumbo), and the other is also in PR. That is not the makeup of, say, the ACLU, EFF, or Consumers Union, or a legitimate consumer group. The alliance’s advisory board includes someone from the Alliance for Competitive Technology, an organization that receives over a million dollars from Microsoft every year. I live in DC and know folks at 463, ACT, and Microsoft–in fact I even like all of them I know. It’s just that it’s obvious to me and anyone in DC: an organization with this backing and structure is not an online watchdog or an advocacy group but a corporate PR vehicle.
This close connection with Microsoft explains why DCA has not attacked Microsoft for the same exact things. In fact, if you do a Microsoft Bing search for “buy steroids,” you will see that ads accompany the results, but you will not for the same search on Google.
It’s understandable why something might fall through the cracks on Bing: the Internet is a big place with trillions of sites and billions of real human users who do things that are sometimes unsavory. It is impossible to police them all in advance and requiring them to do so would undermine free expression and change the nature of the Internet. The Digital Citzens Alliance should let Bing know about this issue. But that’s clearly not the intent of the alliance. It’s not around to actually make the Internet a safer place, just to be part of a PR attack on a specific company.
Disclosure: I advise several companies, including Google, on free expression law and public policy.