Saturday, 22 October 2005

Flag as objectionable - censorship vs freedom of speech

At first I was delighted when Blogger in August 2005 introduced "Flag as objectionable" - after all, I am sure I'm not the only one who's been urging them to add a button to their Navbar to let blog readers flag spam blogs.

Flagging spam blogs is one thing - but marking blogs as "objectionable" is another. I'm really not sure if that's going too far. No, this post hasn't been triggered by anyone flagging my blog - at least I hope they haven't been! It was the recent laudable step up in efforts to stamp out spam blogs which made me start wondering more about the whole thing. Yes, we all hate spam: but in extending flagging to "objectionable" blogs too, has Blogger gone too far?

Clearly Blogger are conscious that this is a potentially tricky issue - their first sentence in their Help page on the Flag button says:
The Flag button is not censorship and it cannot be manipulated by angry mobs. Political dissent? Incendiary opinions? Just plain crazy? Bring it on.

So why am I concerned about this? Well OK, this feature lets them identify blogs that many people don't like:
We track the number of times a blog has been flagged as objectionable and use this information to determine what action is needed. This feature allows the blogging community as a whole to identify content they deem objectionable. Have you read The Wisdom of Crowds? It's sort of like that.

But what bothers me is, is it really right to trust "the wisdom of crowds" on what is or is not objectionable? And secondly, is what Blogger do to "objectionable" blogs right, is it really the best way to deal with "objectionable" blogs?

I'll start with the latter.

What happens to "objectionable" blogs?

Spam blogs (aka "splogs") are pretty obvious; everyone (except spammers of course) would be very happy for them to be zapped immediately. But what about the other blogs? The ones which express views the majority don't like, whether religious, political or sexual, whatever? Blogger say:
The "Flag?" button is a means by which readers of Blog*Spot can help inform us about potentially questionable content, so we can prevent others from encountering such material by setting particular blogs as "unlisted." This means the blog won't be promoted on but will still be available on the web — we prefer to keep in mind that one person's vulgarity is another's poetry. Or something like that.

So far so good. But what does being "unlisted" really mean? Is it really very different from being deleted altogether? Glance at the bottom of Blogger's help page about "unlisted", and you'll see that not only will the blog not appear against the owner's Blogger profile - it won't be crawled by search engines either (if the blog is using Blogger's BlogMetaData tag - which includes all blogs using one of their standard templates). And on the web, as everyone knows, if you're not crawled by the search engines you may as well be invisible. So, it's not very different from censoring the blog in question - to say otherwise is really being quite disingenuous. It seems to me the bottom line is: if you're unlisted, you're toast. Especially if yours is not already a hugely popular blog where zillions have bookmarked your URL (and how many of us have that?). Effectively you'll be silenced, and never have the chance to develop your readership.

The Wisdom of Crowds?

Turn the clock back a couple hundred years, and the crowds thought slavery was acceptable. Even just a century ago - women shouldn't be allowed to vote. Germany during the second world war - certain kinds of people aren't really human and should be exterminated. Sorry, but when it comes to some things, trusting the "crowds" can be downright dangerous, in my book. We're supposed to be living in a free society now, well many of us anyway. It's not hard at all to envisage concerted flagging efforts by certain organised groups who object to particular forms of expression (or the people expressing them) resulting in some blogs being "unlisted": "Let's all go hunt down blogs about X, or by Y kinds of people, and flag them as objectionable".

It's great that Blogger decide to publish a list of deleted Blogspost blogs. It would be even better if they published a list of "unlisted" ones too. And info on how many people have to flag a blog as "objectionable" before they decide to unlist it. And how they decide what to do - if Z people flag a blog, do they just go with that automatically without thinking about it further themselves? If not, what criteria do they use to determine whether to unlist a blog?

It worries me somewhat that, despite Google's "Don't be evil" mantra, Blogger should be "unlisting" (or is it "delisting") blogs which are merely flagged as "objectionable" by lots of people, when they could address the issues by doing something short of unlisting.

A compromise?

Could Blogger do something else that's more compatible with freedom of speech where a blog is not spam, but just "objectionable" to some groups? I think so. I suggest they could do any of these (or ideally a combination):
  • give bloggers (via Dashboard) a checkbox to class their blog as "Controversial" (or the like), which should mean, NOT that the blog becomes unlisted, but that -
    • it will automatically include a warning at the top of each page that says something like "Some may find the contents of this blog objectionable, if you might, do not read it!" (and make it part of their Terms of Service (or TOS) that any template edit that deletes that warning will render the blog liable to deletion), and
    • the "Next Blog" link in the navbar will never, ever take anyone to that blog
  • at least contact the blog owner and give them a chance to have their say, if enough people have flagged the blog as unobjectionable to reach whatever threshold Blogger has set
  • if a blog is nevertheless deemed "objectionable" by Blogger, and they don't agree with the owner, then insert that warning at the top of the page (and delete the blog if the owner removes it) [inadvertent omission corrected 22 October, thanks Neddy!:] and make sure that the "Next Blog" navbar button can't take anyone to that blog
  • unlist the blog from Blogger profiles, but at least don't stop it from being indexed by the search engines.

I would hope that sort of thing should deal with any serial objectors, while preserving some semblance of freedom of speech and allowing minorities to be heard. Maybe it's too much work for Blogger to implement something like that, but with Google's money behind them, why not show that they still care about not being evil?

Meanwhile, if your blog has been "unlisted" as "objectionable" - you can always delete the BlogMetaData tag and insert your own tags, so that your blog can hopefully still be found via the search engines (unless of course Blogger change their TOS to stop you doing that too!).

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Neddy said...

Improbulus said: Could Blogger do something else that's more compatible with freedom of speech where a blog is not spam, but just "objectionable" to some groups? I think so. I suggest they could do any of these (or ideally a combination):

Improbulus, it is puzzling that you are fretting about so-called violations of "freedom of speech" to include everything that is "objectionable" to "some groups", such as blogs "which express views the majority don't like, whether religious, political or sexual" but you are quite eager to restrict the speech of what you have defined as "Spam blogs".

Neither Blogger, nor Google are required to guarantee the right of anyone to speak freely on Blogger's or Google's dime. The right to speak freely may be a civil right, but I know of no government that requires that another pay for your ability to speak. The old saying still applies - He who pays the piper gets to call the tunes.

I am a member of those "some groups" who commend Blogger if it is trying to keep the community one that is comfortable for the majority of patrons. I, for one, have been shocked at images that have popped up when I have clicked "next blog". I do not want my family and blog visitors to be exposed to such perversions. Let them speak freely somewhere else, where I am not exposed to such degradations.

PS I am a big fan of your blogging tips and technical advice.

Improbulus said...

Thanks for your comment, Neddy.

I personally think there is a difference between real content that is saying something (objectionable to some or not), and spam. Obviously it's not an easy balancing act, but most civilised societies impose some limits on freedom of speech, e.g. to safeguard the vulnerable - such as restrictions on adult material to protect minors, or anti-hate speech to protect ethnic minorities. I don't think spam is worthy of protection in the same way, myself!

Oh and of course I appreciate that Blogspot is free, so Google are well within their rights to delete (or refuse to index) any Blogspot blog they like. And similarly that searching on Google is free (though of course they make their money from ads). But it's the old "power/responsibility" issue - search engines are the gatekeepers to the Web. They're not of course legally required to act responsibly in balancing freedom of speech vs. protection of the vulnerable; but they do have an awful lot of power, to censor as well as include, and it will be interesting to see how things develop in the direction of regulating or controlling (or even protecting) the search engines. (For example, see the consultation on possible exclusion of liability for search engines in the UK if their results just contain automatic links to e.g. copyright material, which I posted about in the context of liability for hyperlinkers such as bloggers.)

As for keeping Blogger comfortable for the majority, I think a compromise is possible - that is why, in my list of suggestions, I said that Blogger could fix it so that "objectionable" blogs will never appear on "Next blog" links. (I should have clarified that I think the "Next blog" exclusion I suggested should of course also apply to blogs meeting a reasonable "objectionable" threshold test, not just ones self-classified by the blog owner - and I've corrected my post to add that in).

It is the exclusion from search engines that I find invidious. Though I have no doubt that Google will be introducing something like Yahoo's Safe Search to help filter out adult content from children. Which I think in principle is a great idea - though the focus may then be on how that filter is set, and who controls that.

And I'm glad you like my tech/blogging tips. Thanks for reading. :)

Webmaster said...

Is it allowed to use consumingexperience in a link on:

Please notify me by mail.

With kind regards.

Al S. E. said...

A short time after the flag's introduction, I put together a separate blog at on this particular topic. I thought you may find it interesting.

...mj said...

I've just had a first-hand experience with the irritation that is being flagged. So far I've emailed blogger with a request to have the word verification removed from my posting form. We'll see how far I get.

Thanks for the informative post: it did make my shoulders sag at the realisation of what may have happened to my blog, but I'm hopeful that it'll work out.

Improbulus said...

Kalangie, as you know I've replied by email.

Thanks Al, interesting indeed.

M!key, would be interested to hear how far you get. Though the requirement for word verification for posting may be more related to Blogger's new antispam feature being too trigger happy than to the flagging issue. See the Blogger help page on this.

...mj said...

Thanks Improbulus, I managed to get it ironed out within about 12 hours (overnight) by emailing blogger help. That itself took the usual two emails through their screening system and despite them sending me a generic email regarding their anti-spam features (ie, “that some blogs may be picked up accidentally”), I no longer have a CAPTCHA on my posting form.

You're right, I may not have been flagged, but it seemed like rather coincidental timing given I had just stirred the pot somewhat with a couple of posts...

cheers, m!key

Anonymous said...

I just did get spam-flagged. And my blog is a scrapbooking and crafts blog! I am so mad at blogger for letting such a highly annoying and inconvenient action stem TOTALLY from one mouse click (I went to my blog and tried it myself later right before filling out that lame-o form so a human with apparently not enough to do to earn their $5.15 an hour would review it.)

I am now signed up for a blog at typepad. I do not care if I have to pay. At least those people know that a scrappin' grandma is not a spammer.

Can you tell I'm pissonated (my daughter told me to spell it that way to fool them)? When every time I think of it is a possible stroke, it's time to LEAVE the idiots. We all should. Flag blogger!

Improbulus said...

Anon, how annoying that a scrapbooking and crafts blog would get spam flagged. You mean you tested the flagging yourself on your own blog, and that in itself was enough to get your blog flagged? And Blogger never fixed it?

I'm OK with sticking with Blogger myself as overall I like it, but of course you need to pick whatever works best for you. I hope you're happy with Typepad.