Censoring the censors

Finland’s State Prosecutor Mika Illman has recently suggested that law should make it mandatory for internet discussion forums to use moderators. These moderators would moderate the conversation and remove any illegal messages.

Once in a while it shocks me to see people throwing around ideas like these in positions where they should atleast exercise fair judgement. Either this is a person who doesn’t know what he is talking about or this is exatly the sort of Brezhnev’s mindset that scares me – the state and the people in the state moderating each other for unlawful behaviour.

Apply the idea to physical world and it sounds ridiculous. No talking on public plazas unless there are moderators around? Who moderates the moderators? C’mon. Welcome to 1984.

Apparently Mr. Illman thinks this is good use for tax payer money. To expose the absurdness of this idea, let me educate a little bit on what kind of discussion forums there are on the internet:

  • Discussion boards: the sort of public plazas where everyone can register a nickname and participate in a coversation around a certain topic. Usually centralized on one server maintained by a single person.
  • IRC and other chatrooms: anyone can setup a discussion channel and anyone can join and comment. The technical protocols have no capability for moderation. What is said, has been said. The conversation is distributed over a network of servers. IRC servers are often maintained by universities and other organizations.
  • Blogs: your voice on the internet. Public discourse is conducted under individual blog posts or between blogs with technologies like trackbacks. Single blogs are often maintained by individuals on platforms maintained by companies like Google or SixApart, but the conversation itself is distributed on a network.
  • Microblogging/mobile presence: something like Jaiku or Twitter, where you use your mobile phone to update your presence and have conversations around presences. A server is used to centralize the conversation, but the conversation is also distributed over multiple different mobile devices over traditional phone networks.
  • Email and mailing lists. One email address is used to distribute messages to a number of subscribers. Each reply is sent to everyone on the mailing list. A network of mail transfer agents distribute the messages.
  • The list goes on… Internet has also different protocols, not just HTTP (WWW). Take for example instant messaging platforms like AIM, MSN, ICQ or Skype that enable chatrooms between multiple individuals. Think of newsgroups. Also, there are massive online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, where we emulate public plazas for conversation.

It’s not easy to distinct one conversation technology from one another. The internet is the ultimate conversation technology.

Some discussions are located on a single server maintained by a single person, some are distributed on a network of servers and maintained by multiple different people. Some cross over legal boundaries (a law set forward in Finland cannot affect servers located in a different country). The only way to moderate the conversation is to moderate the internet. Sure, we could try to form artificial technical boundaries like China has done, but is that what people really want? Finland would not be the innovative network society we portray ourselves in the future.

When decentralization increases, moderation becomes much harder. The internet is increasingly becoming integrated with our physical world with RFID tags, QR-codes and other technologies, forming an internet of things. The web has no clear boundaries. The conversations going on in the network are like ideas emerging in our neural networks: there is no easy way to locate a single idea and its roots in the network and then censor it.

Bottom line, do the math: taking the number of discussion forums, means, channels, technologies and methods we have on the internet and consider that each one needs to have a moderator and the moderators require moderation, too. We have 5 million people in Finland. We simply don’t have enough people, reason or patience to do all of that.

Mr. Illman has done his dissertation on free speech and I find it strage that with suggestions like this he is showing such a lack of academic understanding on digital technologies.

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  • http://nuvatsia.terevaden.net Tere

    Well, you know, a judge in London admitted during an anti-terrorism trial that he didn’t know what a web-page is:


    “”The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a Web site is,” he told a London court during the trial of three men charged under anti-terrorism laws.”

    I believe we are dealing with a generational issue here. You have to use the net intensively for some periods of time in order to get a hang of it. Suggestions like Illman’s are, I guess, motivated by a will to just make the problem go away in the “easiest” way possible.