The Tech Policy Greenhouse is an online symposium where experts tackle the most difficult policy challenges facing innovation and technology today. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, where every decision involves tradeoffs and unintended consequences, so we've gathered a wide variety of voices to help dissect existing policy proposals and better inform new ones.

Welcome To The Techdirt Tech Policy Greenhouse: Content Moderation Edition

from the stop,-listen,-and-learn dept

In the early days of the internet, there was no shortage of predictions insisting the emerging technology would be a bold new frontier of transformative change, ushering forth a golden era of connectivity free from the pesky befuddlement of incompetent government leaders, bad actors, and malicious overlords. This new frontier, we were told, would culminate in a fairer and more humane planet, unshackled from the petty hassles of the brick and mortar world, extracting us from our worst impulses as we marched, collectively, toward a better and more ethical future.

Technological innovation, it would seem, was going to fix everything.

This optimism certainly wasn’t unwarranted. For those of us who cut our teeth on the advent of the internet (I spent much of my own youth on an Apple IIe at 300 baud, enamored with early bulletin board systems), the capacity for revolutionary change was obvious. It still is. But while there’s certainly an endless list of examples showcasing the internet’s incredible potential for positive, transformative cultural change and innovation, the last decade has witnessed a clear reckoning for those who seemingly believed the lesser angels of our nature wouldn’t come along for the ride.

Internet corporations so large, or so fused to the government itself, that they laugh off the intervention of world governments. Foreign and domestic propaganda efforts, often working in concert, geared toward sowing discord and division. Disinformation at scale so dangerous it helps spur genocide. Bogus missives so potent they can impact elections and the democratic process itself. Trolls; swatting; deep fakes; racist subreddits; live streamed mass shootings; Pinterest child porn; gamergate; millions getting dangerous health information from unqualified nitwits on YouTube.

The core of many of these problems aren’t new. In fact in many instances, they’re as old as humanity itself. But they have mutated into dangerous new variants courtesy of technology, scale, naivete, and apathy. There’s simply no escaping the fact we could have done a better job predicting their evolutionary impact, and establishing systems of oversight, transparency, and accountability that could have dulled many of their sharpest edges.

As with Greenhouse, privacy edition, there are no easy answers here. Moderation at scale is utterly formidable. Doing it well at scale may be impossible. Every last policy decision comes with trade offs and a myriad of unforeseen consequences that need to be adequately understood before rushing face first into the fray. As the Section 230 debate makes abundantly clear, there’s no shortage of bad faith or unworkable ideas that hold the potential to create far more problems than they profess to solve. Avoiding these pitfalls will require stopping, listening, and understanding one another — American cultural anomalies to be sure.

We’re hopeful that the insights presented here from those on the front lines of the content moderation debate will help inform policy makers, the public, and experts alike. And we’re hopeful the pieces make some small contribution to the foundation of a better, kinder, more equitable internet more in line with our original good intentions. Techdirt Greenhouse is a conversation, so if you’ve got expertise in the content moderation arena, or see pieces you’d like to respond to, please feel free to reach out.

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