Griff Robins

Guardians of the web

Censored, Blocked, Banned – more and more these are the buzz words of the internet. From the wholesale blocking of websites in China and Turkey, to the gay kiss scandal that erupted on Facebook after the John Snow incident, just who are the new guardians of our internet morality and should we worry about the power they wield over our online behaviour?

Up until a couple of years ago the web was perceived as a big free-for-all where anything goes, but not anymore. In fact it seems we have begun to accept restriction as a small price to pay for our newly found digital freedoms. For example, the fact that all gay cruising apps for the iPhone have to comply with strict conditions on adult content laid down by Apple, hasn’t dented their appeal.

But who enforces these rules? We are all familiar with the “Flag as inappropriate” and “Report” buttons on platforms like Facebook, and YouTube. Problems occur, as with the gay kiss pic, when flagged content comes up for review by an individual employee. The overzealous judgements of a single staff member can call into question the ethos of a company, and single-handedly disenfranchise a whole community.

Clearly a more balanced approach is called for – one that respects the freedom of expression of individuals, while protecting the integrity of the website in question.

Websites can generally set their own rules, based on the laws of the country where they are located. Gay dating site PlanetRomeo is based in the Netherlands, a country that traditionally has some of the most liberal regulations when it comes to porn and sexual matters. Nevertheless they seek to ensure that all images uploaded by their 1.2 million users are correctly classified and that people do not abuse the system. How do they handle it?

We spoke to PlanetRomeo and learned that their users upload an average of 35,000 new pictures every day. To cope with that volume they’ve developed a classification system where users work together with staff. Every single picture is reviewed and voted on by multiple people. The volume of those involved means that pictures are often classified and online within a few minutes. The results are highly reliable and there is a secure fall-back system that refers any borderline or dodgy material to expert staff.

A spokesperson explained, “Many PlanetRomeo users are passionate about taking an active role in our community and keeping it safe and open. They trust the system because they’re a part of it and they know there’s no risk of homophobic judgements from other users or staff members.”

Collectively we are all sharing more and more personal information and photos online on websites that seem to struggle with encouraging self-expression on the one hand, while not wishing to offend the “moral” majority on the other. It’s reassuring to know that at least within our own community certain companies are adopting a more progressive, democratic approach. Perhaps some of the more mainstream players could take note and start involving us in how they formulate and implement their policies.

Datasource: PlanetRomeo

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