Dr Michael Veale, Associate Professor in Digital Rights & Regulation UCL Faculty of Laws, 2022-23 (partial syllabus)
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I run part of this module for final year undergraduates at UCL Laws. I will maintain my part of the reading list publicly here. If other parts of the reading list are publicly available, I will add a link in future.
S9: Sexuality, Platform Governance and Content Moderation
In recent years, online platforms have taken increasingly active roles in managing the content on their services. Deciding what should stay online or be taken down, or what should be suppressed or amplified, is a value-laden practice called content moderation. Platform companies such as Meta, TikTok, Google or Twitter all play crucial roles, and together employ tens of thousands of individuals around the world to engage in this work, alongside automated algorithmic technologies and systems for user-reporting and reputation. Governments too have been increasingly involved in content moderation too, with a range of emerging laws around the world interacting with the pratices of platforms. In this seminar, we will consider what happens when content moderation practices meet queer content, which intrinsically challenges binaries and boundaries, often seeks to subvert conventional rules and norms, and which often seeks to reclaim sexual elements that some individuals, countries or cultures consider taboo.
- Robert Gorwa, ‘What Is Platform Governance?’ (2019) 22 Information, Communication & Society 854. open access preprint
- An explanatory paper of the varied meanings of the term ‘platform governance’, with some of the approaches seen to date. Note that the legal situation is quickly changing in this area, with proposals such as the EU Digital Services Act and the UK Online Safety Bill entering discussion since publication of this piece.
- ‘Straight Code’, in Alexander Monea, The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight (MIT Press 2022).
- A look at the heteronormativity of governing using code.
- Zahra Stardust, ‘Safe For Work: Feminist Porn, Corporate Regulation and Community Standards’ in Catherine Dale and Rosemary Overell (eds), Orienting Feminism: Media, Activism, Cultural Representation (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).
- Jason Koebler and Samantha Cole, ‘Apple Sucked Tumblr Into Its Walled Garden, Where Sex Is Bad’ (Vice Motherboard, 3 December 2018)
- A magazine article illustrating the multiple levels of platform governance around sexuality; how “deeper” platforms like Apple’s App Store regulate more shallow platforms such as Tumblr with nested contractual obligations and/or Terms of Service.
- Thiago Dias Oliva and others, ‘Fighting Hate Speech, Silencing Drag Queens? Artificial Intelligence in Content Moderation and Risks to LGBTQ Voices Online’ (2021) 25 Sexuality & Culture 700.
- A study of toxicity detection algorithms Perspective (from Google’s Jigsaw team) and from Twitter, looking at how the forms of communication used by the drag community tend to register as toxic and risk takedown or classification by algorithmic systems.
- Julian A Rodriguez, ‘LGBTQ Incorporated: YouTube and the Management of Diversity’  Journal of Homosexuality.
- A digital ethnography looking the the public corporate face of video platform YouTube, as well as its less visible practices of moderation, demonetisation and account blocking of LGBTQ users and content according to its Terms of Service.
- Jevan A Hutson and others, ‘Debiasing Desire: Addressing Bias & Discrimination on Intimate Platforms’ (2018) 2 Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 73:1.
- This article considers some of the consequences of the design decisions around dating apps, and how they can facilitate and amplify bias and discrimination.
- ‘Overblocking’, in Alexander Monea, The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight (MIT Press 2022).
- This chapter looks further at content moderation decisions in queer context online.
Questions for Consideration
- What are platforms, and what do they do? What different kinds can you think of, and in what ways are they similar or different?
- What is platform governance?
- In what ways do platforms alter their users’ behaviour, and how might this affect sexual minorities?
- In what ways do platforms alter other companies’ or organisations behaviour? Why might this be relevant here?
- What does it mean to govern using code? How do platforms do it, and what challenges does it bring?
- Are mainstream platforms inherently heteronormative?
S10: Sexuality, Anonymity and an Age-Gated Internet
A 1993 New Yorker cartoon proclaimed that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. The same veneer of anonymity that computer-using canines made use of has also been key to allowing individuals to freely explore their sexualities on the Internet, particularly in less tolerant cultures or communities, or where infrequent identities made encountering individuals outside of the largest cities difficult. At the same time, there have been concerns around anonymity online, particularly regards the freedom it can give individuals to act with impunity and without regard for consequences; and the ease with which children can access content which may be considered inappropriate for them. In this session, we will unpack these together, looking both at the importance of control over visibility and identity for queer individuals online, and zoom in on recent UK policy proposals around age verification and assurance online.
- Matthew Carrasco and Andruid Kerne, ‘Queer Visibility: Supporting LGBT+ Selective Visibility on Social Media’, Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (ACM 2018)
- An interview-based study with US young adults into how they self-present on social media, and how the design decisions of social media platforms affect their participation on them.
- Victoria Nash, ‘Gatecrashers? Freedom of Expression in an Age-Gated Internet’ in Alistair S Duff (ed), Research Handbook on Information Policy (Edward Elgar 2021).
- A chapter by a UK academic considering the interaction between policy goals of child protection and freedom of expression online.
- Thorsten Thiel, ‘Anonymity: The Politicisation of a Concept’ in Anon Collective (ed), The Book of Anonymity (Punctum Books 2021).
- A short chapter providing an overview of different meanings of anonymity and their social, technical and political trajectories over time.
- Online Safety Bill (as amended in Public Bill Committee), particularly clauses 2-3, 6-7, 10-14, 19, 31-33, 49, 53, 54, 57, but you may have to jump to others as they are referenced.
- This is an extremely long and complex Bill. It is also an extremely important one. In short, it places obligations on in-scope Internet services relating to illegal content (which we are less interested in for the purposes of this session), as well as content which is considered ‘legal but harmful’ to certain groups. If a service is likely to be accessed by children, then specific measures to either prevent children being harmed by or encountering such content is required. If a service is of a particular influence or magnitude, then measures have to be taken to mitigate content that is considered ‘legal but harmful’ to adults. Much of the Bill is left up to the Secretary of State to specify in regulations, or for the regulator OFCOM to expand upon. Your job is to analyse and anticipate some of the challenges and tensions that might arise.
- Terminology note: Acts have sections while Bills, until they are passed, refer to these as clauses.
- Anthony Henry Triggs, Kristian Møller and Christina Neumayer, ‘Context Collapse and Anonymity among Queer Reddit Users’ (2021) 23 New Media & Society 5.
- A study of Reddit users on how they manage their identities online, particularly when exploring their sexuality.
- Alexander Dhoest and Lukasz Szulc, ‘Navigating Online Selves: Social, Cultural, and Material Contexts of Social Media Use by Diasporic Gay Men’ (2016) 2 Social Media + Society 2056305116672485.
- An interview study of individuals in Belgium from various diaspora, many of which have significant legal or cultural barriers to openness about their sexuality. Considers the way they use technologies, particularly Facebook, to navigate these challenges and present their identities to multiple communities.
- Anon Collective (ed), Book of Anonymity (punctum books 2021).
- An edited volume full of short contributions on the subject of anonmity by scholars, activists and artists, including an essay on anonymous mass publicness, “Collective Pleasures of Anonymity From Public Restrooms to 4chan and Chatroulette”. Includes the essay by Thiel in the essential readings.
- Bryan Choi, ‘The Anonymous Internet’ (2013) 72 Maryland Law Review 501.
- A law review article arguing that anonymity on the Internet should be curtailed, as the only other alternative is to limit the ability of individuals to freely use technologies to generate whatever they like.
- David Kaye, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (United Nations Human Rights Council, A/HRC/29/2, 22 May 2015), paras 47-55.
- A report by a former UN Special Rapporteur discussing anonymity and the right to be anonymous online.
- Clare McGlynn and Lorna Woods, ‘Pornography and the UK’s Online Safety Bill’ (1 July 2022).
- A recent policy briefing by two legal academics who have been prominent in pushing for legal reform of online platforms summarising the impact they see the current draft of the Online Safety Bill will have on platforms publishing pornography, and platforms where user-to-user pornographic material is available.
- Jackie Snow, ‘Why Age Verification Is So Difficult for Websites’ (Wall Street Journal, 27 February 2022) (if paywalled, UCL library link)
- A short news article looking at the practical challenges of age verification technologies.
Questions for Consideration
- How do queer individuals use anonymity online? What strategies do they use to manage their identities?
- What are the different ways we might understand the term “anonymous”? Can we be anonymous on today’s Internet?
- What are the arguments for and against age verification online?
- How does the Online Safety Bill propose to implement different versions of age verification and individual identification? What challenges will it face in implementation?
- What impacts might age verification or assurance have on individuals, particiularly those exploring their sexuality, and on the Internet more broadly?
- Is age verification or assurance a proportionate response to online policy challenges? What should policymakers do?