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Accountability on the Internet: What’s the Role of the New Information Gatekeepers?

Johanna Martinsson's picture

The internet has certainly changed the process of how information and news is filtered and by whom.  A process that was carried out by traditional media for decades is today largely managed by a few internet companies through algorithms.  In this new role, they are not only filtering information but also helping us navigate a widely scattered information landscape through their products and services.  In a new report by the Center of International Media Assistance, Bill Ristow discusses the role of these new information gatekeepers and the implications they face in protecting policies and practices across borders, such as openness of information and freedom of expression. Setting universally accepted norms on what is good behavior on the internet and what is not, is a major challenge. The question is who should be making these kinds of decisions? How are the new information gatekeepers held accountable?

The report uses Professor Pamela Shoemaker’s definition of “gatekeeping.”  It goes, “gatekeeping is the process by which the billions of messages that are available in the world get cut down and transformed into the hundreds of messages that reach a given person on a given day.”  So who exactly are the new information gatekeepers? Ristow mainly draws from the large internet companies that dominate the internet, including Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook.  Interestingly, it is mentioned that Google doesn’t like to be referred to as a gatekeeper.  For them, “all gates” are down. Instead, their mission is “to organize the world’s information.” But, in the report Karine Nahon, associate professor at the University of Washington, says that the large internet companies are indeed gatekeepers through the tools and services they provide. She refers to gatekeeping mechanisms such as search engines, as these tools prioritize information for us. Another example is the autocomplete function, which suggests search terms as we type. In the end, the internet companies have some control over what pieces of information they will allow us to see.

As the large internet companies operate globally, things get trickier in countries that don’t support their principles of openness and free expression.  Each day, they receive thousands of requests to remove content that clash with a country’s laws and norms. In one of the chapters, Ristow provides examples of how takedown requests from governments are handled.  For example, Google normally blocks content that is hate speech or in response to courts and governments. However, an interesting statistic reveals that Google’s compliance with government requests declined from 76% to 52% between December, 2010, and June, 2012. The company is transparent in releasing regular reports of takedown requests.  The decision-making process behind such requests, however, seems less clear.  One can assume that decisions are context driven, and that refusing requests could be a costly business. After all, these companies are in the market to generate revenue.

The question remains, what are the internet companies’ responsibilities in managing and regulating content? In the report, Rebecca MacKinnon, and others argue “that simply espousing high principles isn’t enough, and that the significance of these corporations’ role in managing information demands some formalized system of accountability.” But an agreement about what this should be has yet to be formalized. 

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) might be the answer to sort out many of the issues mentioned. The initiative was established in 2008 to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector. Members of GNI include several of the large internet companies mentioned, as well as human rights groups, investors and academia. GNI has created a code of conduct for the ICT industry, entitled “Principles of Freedom of Expression and Privacy”. The documents states that ICT companies (and I copy from Ristow’s report) “have the responsibility to respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users,” and that GNI members should work with governments and the international community on “measures to protect freedom of expression and policy rights”. The document also includes a statement on accountability; it says that GNI members “will be held accountable through a system of (a) transparency with the public and (b) independent assessment and evaluation of the implementation of these Principles.”

A possible challenge ahead, Ristow cautions, is the expanded role and influence of the mobile industry and telecommunications networks.  As these entities are often regulated by governments, there’s the possibility that they may also take a larger role in censorship and repression of speech.

The report ends with a set of recommendations for addressing the role of the new information gatekeepers:

  • The dominant Internet companies should be more transparent about how they decide on content issues.
  • The start-ups of today should consider the lessons of the recent past.
  • Twitter (and the telecoms, and other ICT companies) should join the Global Network Initiative. (A much broader industry base is needed for the initiative to have an impact.)
  • The Global Network Initiative should tough up. (Ristow points out that the initiative needs to move in a much faster phase to obtain its mission. Norms change with technological advancements.)
  • To the users: pay attention and weigh in.

While the large internet companies Ristow mentions carry a certain responsibility, it also very much comes down to the users. For example, it’s easy to blame Facebook and others when privacy settings change.  But, we (the users), must also take a certain responsibility and make smart choices when engaging with tools and services offered online.  I have written several times before about the significance of Media and Information Literacy.  It’s an important pre-condition when discussing democracy and development as it’s closely linked to individual freedoms, such as freedom of information and expression.  A media literate citizenry, who can access, analyze, and evaluate information, is better equipped to make informed choices and opinions that can have a direct impact on their daily lives and communities.

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