Week in Review: June 22, 2016

by Grant Baker

Changes in Reddit Occur After the Orlando Shooting

Many people rely on Reddit for breaking news, but after last week’s shooting in Orlando, some readers felt their trust was broken. Normally, r/news provides readers with real-time breaking news, but this week an argument was brewing in the thread. Members of “the main Donald Trump subreddit,” r/The_Donald, believed that the moderators of the r/news thread “were unnecessarily censoring the discussion about the shooting,” including the information that Omar Mateen, the then-unidentified shooter, was a Muslim and information on blood drives. The Daily Beast reports that nearly 80,000 users left r/news and 11,712 new users joined r/The_Donald on Sunday after the alleged censorship. Members of the Donald Trump subreddit hurled accusations and insults at the moderators in the r/The_Donald forum The volume of these comments, many of which violated Reddit’s Terms of Service, elevated the subreddit to the top of r/all, which displays activity from the entire site. The massive wave of posts and responses arguing about the potential “censorship,” which crowded out much of the actual news posted to the site, illustrate an ongoing tension for Reddit between unlimited free expression and a more carefully moderated environment. Part of the issue is that the moderators are volunteers whose work is supplemented by an automated filter, or “automod,” which “was the culprit behind some of the more egregious post removals.” At the same time, the moderators admitted that there was some human error as well. The other part of the issue was that while people were trying to get news during the Orlando shooting, the Donald Trump subreddit dominated the r/all page. In response to this, “the firm has tweaked the algorithm it uses to display what’s on the r/all page.” Essentially, the more often people “from the same community” post excessively, the less likely their comments are to show up on the “r/all” thread. In a Washington Post article, Hayley Tsukayama notes that a problem like this “pits Reddit’s principles of free expression against its desire to moderate discussion.” The algorithm went into effect on last Thursday, but it remains to be seen if it will do enough to prevent this from happening in the future.

Blockchain for Governance and Social Good

Traditionally, people have used blockchain technology to support Bitcoin, but this week New America, The National Democratic Institute, and The Bitfury Group announced the Blockchain Trust Accelerator Initiative. The new initiative strives to “connect governments with technologists and funders to hasten the adoption of technology for social good and governance.” Although financial companies and venture capital firms have invested $1.2 billion into blockchain technology for financial purposes, there have not been nearly as many investments in using blockchain for other purposes. One of the proposed initiatives is a blockchain voting system, which could potentially stymie government corruption and prevent governments from changing election results. The first actual project will be a land titling system for the Republic of Georgia. Future developments will allow people to send proposals for new projects through a web portal system; proposals will be reviewed by the initiative’s board of directors. So far, the accelerator has attracted interest from many important institutions, including the White House. This effort will test whether or not blockchain can be technology successful in strengthening infrastructure throughout the world. For a refresher on how blockchain works and how it is used with Bitcoin, read here.

New Methods of Online Censorship in Russia

In an agreement signed on June 16, 2016, the Russian government gave Roskomnadzor, the arm of the executive branch that regulates the media, the power to “un-delegate domain names that are found to host child pornography without a court order.” This new practice “adds to a growing list of extrajudicial privileges for a handful of Russian state agencies” by extending the powers of state-controlled agencies with regards to internet censorship. Many agencies, including the General Prosecutor’s Office, have long had the power to ban online content and websites. If an agency or a court wants a website banned, Roskomnadzor first asks the website to remove “offending content.” After that, if the website refuses to remove the content, Roskomnadzor then adds it to the “banned website registry” and mandates that Internet Service Providers block these websites. Under the new agreement, Roskomnadzor now has the power to simply un-delegate offending sites’ domain names itself. If Roskomnadzor finds child pornography, it will be able to“file a request with one of the many domain registrars to undelegate their domain names,” if the domain is either a .ru or .РФ. This new decision gives Roskomnadzor and the government another recourse for censoring online content in addition to the traditional reporting method and specifically designated “competent agencies” that have the power to categorize content as dangerous. Notably, all of these methods circumvent the courts and allow the government to ban online content with minimal oversight. For more on internet regulation in Russia, read our 2014 report, “The Tightening Web of Russian Internet Regulation.”

Like Iraq, Algeria Blocks the Internet During Exam Times

Algerian authorities restricted access to Facebook and other social media sites in an effort to prevent cheating and plagiarism during exams. According to government officials, the main concern was that students would consult baccalaureate papers online and cheat on their exams; however, the government also added that it made this decision “to protect students from ‘Phony Topics.’” The government did not stop at blocking various social media sites, but also made efforts to “disrupt” 3G connection for wireless phones across the country. Although it may seem odd to block internet access during exams, Algeria is not the first government to use this method. For the past two years, Iraq has done the same during nationwide exams, drawing criticisms from tech companies and human rights groups. Despite Algeria’s attempts to block the internet, the local news reported that many Algerian students still used VPNs to access the blocked content. Local newspapers criticized the government’s actions, arguing that the government was in violation of “international regulations,” citing a 2011 report regarding freedom of expression. The government took this measure just a few weeks after many government employees were arrested at the National Education offices in a response to the leak of the 2016 high school exams to the media.

A New Technology for Stopping Terrorist Propaganda?

This week, researchers from Dartmouth College in cooperation with non-profit policy group The Counter Extremism Project announced that “they have created a technology that can help Internet companies instantly detect images and videos generated by terrorists and their supporters to remove them from their platforms.” The project, dubbed the National Office for Reporting Extremism (NORex), creates “a distinct digital signature or ‘hash’ for each image.” If a user posts the same image or a very similar image, the algorithm will automatically remove the content; the algorithm also works for audio clips and videos. This is not the first tool of its kind; many internet companies use technology from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which automatically removes child pornography from a website. Yet, this tool is predictably facing far more backlash from tech companies; child pornography is expressly illegal, whereas spreading “terrorist” images is a far greyer line. One of the tech companies’ main concerns is that the tool would accidentally censor non-offensive images; however, the far bigger concern is that foreign governments may widen the definition of terrorist images or terrorist content to include political opposition and other voices of dissent within these countries. The Washington Post quoted an unnamed tech industry offer who explained that “people aren’t aware of the demands that are placed on tech companies from governments like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”