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March 2021
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Content Moderation Case Study: Decentralized Social Media Platform Mastodon Deals With An Influx Of Gab Users (2019)

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Summary: Formed as a more decentralized alternative to Twitter that allowed users to more directly moderate the content they wanted to see, Mastodon has experienced slow, but steady, growth since its inception in 2016.Unlike other social media networks, Mastodon is built on open-source software and each "instance" (server node) of the network is operated by users. These separate "instances" can be connected with others via Mastodon's interlinked "fediverse." Or they can remain independent, creating a completely siloed version of Mastodon that has no connection with the service's larger "fediverse."This puts a lot of power in the hands of the individuals who operate each instance: they can set their own rules, moderate content directly, and prevent anything the "instance" and its users find undesirable from appearing on their servers. But the larger "fediverse" -- with its combined user base -- poses moderation problems that can't be handled as easily as those presenting themselves on independent "instances." The connected "fediverse" allows instances to interact with each other, allowing unwanted content to appear on servers that are trying to steer clear of it.That's where Gab -- another Twitter alternative -- enters the picture. Gab has purposely courted users banned from other social media services. Consequently, the platform has developed a reputation for being a haven for hate speech, racists, and bigots of all varieties. This toxic collection of content/users led to both Apple and Google banning Gab's app from their app stores.Faced with this app ban, Gab began looking for options. It decided to create its own Mastodon instance. With its server now technically available to everyone in the Mastodon "fediverse," those not explicitly blocking Gab's "instance" could find Gab content available to its users -- and also allow for Gab's users to direct content to their own users. It also allowed Gab to utilize the many different existing Mastodon apps to sidestep the app bans handed down by Google and Apple.Decisions to be made by Mastodon:

  • Should Gab (and its users) be banned from setting up "instances," given that they likely violate the Mastodon Server Covenant?
  • Is it possible to moderate content across a large number of independent nodes?
  • Is this even an issue for Mastodon itself to deal with, given that the individuals running different servers can decide for themselves whether or not to allow federation with the Gab instance?
  • Given the open source and federated nature of Mastodon, would there reasonably be any way to stop Gab from using Mastodon?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • Will moderation efforts targeting the "fediverse" undercut the independence granted to "instance" owners?
  • Do attempts to attract more users create moderation friction when the newly-arriving users create content Mastodon was created to avoid?
  • If Mastodon continues to scale, will it always face challenges as certain instances are created to appeal to audiences that the rest of the fediverse is trying to avoid?
  • Can a federated system, in which unique instances choose not to federate with another instance, such as Gab, work as a form of moderation-by-exclusion?
Resolution: Mastodon's founder, Eugen Rochko, refused to create a blanket ban on Gab, leaving it up to individual "instances" to decide whether or not to interact with the interlopers. As he explained to The Verge, a blanket ban would be almost impossible, given the decentralized nature of the service.On the other hand, most "fediverse" members would be unlikely to have to deal with Gab or its users, considering the content contained in Gab's "instance" routinely violates the Mastodon "covenant." Violating these rules prevents instances from being listed by Mastodon itself, lowering the chances of other "instance" owners inadvertently adding toxic content and users to their server nodes. And Rochko himself encouraged users to preemptively block Gab's "instance," resulting in ever fewer users being affected by Gab's attempted invasion of the Mastodon fediverse.But running a decentralized system creates an entirely new set of moderation issues, which has turned Mastodon itself into a moderation target. Roughly a year after the Gab "invasion," Google threatened to pull Mastodon-based apps from its store for promoting hate speech, after users tried to get around the Play Store ban by creating apps that pointed to Mastodon instances filled with hateful content. Google ultimately decided to leave Mastodon-based apps up, but appears ready to pull the trigger on a ban in future.Originally posted to the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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posted at: 12:00am on 04-Mar-2021
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Another Game Developer DMCAs Its Own Game In Dispute With Publisher

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Way back in early 2019, we wrote about an odd story with a game developer DMCAing its own game on Valve's Steam platform over a dispute with its publisher. The short version of the story is that the developer accused the publisher of ghosting out on royalty payments, so the takedown allowed the developer to wrestle back control of the game and put it back up themselves. Steam, which has a reputation of being far more friendly to publishers than developers, in this case actually helped the developer wade through getting control of its game.And now, two years later, it's happening again. Frogwares, developer of The Sinking City game, issued a DMCA notice for the game to Steam. At issue again is the publisher, Nacon in this case, being accused of both of skipping out on royalty payments last summer and cracking Frogwares' game and altering it, putting out a completely unauthorized version. See, due to the royalty issues, Frogwares had already pulled the game off of digital storefronts last summer. Suddenly, Nacon published a new version of the game on Steam in the past few days. The details as laid out by Frogwares on that last bit are... quite a thing.

In a post it put up yesterday afternoon, Frogwares further detailed the situation, writing, “[T]o our great surprise, we found a new version of The Sinking City was uploaded to Steam and launched, but Frogwares didn’t deliver such a version… Nacon, under the management of its president Alain Falc, asked some of their employees to crack, hack and pirate our game, change its content in order to commercialize it under their own name, and this is how they did it.”The game developer’s post goes on to share a variety of information that, Frogwares writes, is evidence proving the French publisher bought The Sinking City from a separate platform and altered the game’s data to hide its tracks. This included replacing online retailer Gamesplanet’s logo in the opening credits and loading screen as well as removing a dynamic “Play More” option from the main menu that pointed players towards Frogwares’ other games and acted as a non-intrusive security measure by connecting to external servers.
Nacon claims otherwise, of course. The publisher says it has a contractual arrangement with Frogwares, that the new release is authorized, and that all is on the up and up. But two facts seem to suggest that might not be true. For starters, if this were an authorized release, why the mucking about with buying and cracking other copies of the game from other storefronts? Assuming the evidence Frogwares is putting out there is true, there should be no need to do any of that if there is an arrangement between developer and publisher.But Nacon knows all of that, as it's been locked in a legal battle in French courts over the rights to publish the game for months. From a statement Frogwares put out:
Regarding our use of a DMCA to remove the game from Steam. We believe in a very short time, we were able to collect extremely strong evidence to indicate this version of the game was pirated and contains content that Nacon has absolutely no rights to – namely The Merciful Madness DLC. A DMCA notice proved to be our most effective tool to give us time to gain further potential evidence and to also start the required and lengthy additional legal processes to prevent this from happening again. We are aware that a final ruling on whether Frogwares are obligated to deliver a Steam version has yet not been made and could take years. As it stands, we have an appeals court ruling saying, until further notice Frogwares do not need to deliver a Steam version to Nacon. In the meantime, Nacon decided to take justice into their own hands and release a pirated build.
Which sort of makes that publisher a pirate if true. And this is the sort of piracy that damned well should be punished.

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posted at: 12:00am on 04-Mar-2021
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The Unasked Question In Tech Policy: Where Do We Get The Lawyers?

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When we criticize Internet regulations like the CCPA and GDPR, or lament the attempts to roll back Section 230, one of the points we almost always raise is how unduly expensive these policy decisions can be for innovators. Any law that increases the risk of legal trouble increases the need for lawyers, whose services rarely come cheap.But bare cost is only part of the problem. All too often, policymakers seem to assume an infinite supply of capable legal counsel, and it's an assumption that needs to be questioned.First, there are not an infinite number of lawyers. For better or worse, the practice of law is a heavily regulated profession with significant barriers to entry. The legal industry can be fairly criticized, and often is, for making it more difficult and expensive to become a lawyer than perhaps it should be, but there is at least some basic threshold of training, competence, and moral character we should want all lawyers to have attained given the immense responsibility they are regularly entrusted with. These requirements will inevitably limit the overall lawyer population.(Of course, there shouldn't be an infinite number of lawyers anyway. As discussed below, lawyers play an important role in society, but theirs is not the only work that is valuable. In the field of technology law, for example, our need for people to build new things should well outpace our need for lawyers to defend what has been built. We should be wary of creating such a need for the latter that the legal profession siphons off too much of the talent able to do the former.)But even where we have lawyers we still need the right kind of lawyers. Lawyers are not really interchangeable. Different kinds of lawyering need different types of skills and subject-matter expertise, and lawyers will generally specialize, at least to some extent, in what they need to master for their particular practice area. For instance, a lawyer who does estate planning is not generally the one you'd want to defend you against a criminal charge, nor would one who does family law ordinarily be the one you'd want writing your employment manual. There are exceptions, but generally because that particular lawyer went out of their way to develop parallel expertise. The basic fact remains: simply picking any old lawyer out of the yellow pages is rarely likely to lead to good results; you want one experienced with dealing with the sorts of legal issues you actually have, substantively and practically.True, lawyers can retrain, and it is not uncommon for lawyers to switch their focus and develop new skills and expertise at some point in their careers. But it's a problem if a disproportionate number start to specialize in the same area because, just as we need people available to work professions other than law, even within the law we still need other kinds of lawyers available to work on other areas of law outside these particular specialized areas.And we also need to be able to afford them. We already have a serious "access to justice" problem, where only the most resourced are able to obtain legal help. A significant cause of this problem is the expense of law school, which makes it difficult for graduates to resist the siren call of more remunerative employment, but it's a situation that will only get worse if lawyer-intensive regulatory schemes end up creating undue demand for certain legal specializations. For example, as we increasingly pass a growing thicket of complex privacy regulations we create the need for more and more privacy lawyers to help innovators deal with these rules. But as the need for privacy lawyers outstrips the ready availability of lawyers with this expertise, it threatens to raise the costs for anyone needing any sort of lawyering at all. It's a basic issue of supply and demand: the more privacy lawyers that are needed, the more expensive it will be to attract them. And the more these lawyers are paid a premium to do this work, the more it will lure lawyers away from other areas that still need serving, thus making it all the more expensive to hire those who are left to help with it.Then there is the question of where lawyers even get the expertise they need to be effective counsel in the first place. The dirty little secret of legal education is that, at least until recently, it probably wasn't at their law schools. Instead lawyers have generally been trained up on the job, and what newbie lawyers ended up learning has historically depended on what sort of legal job it was (and how good a legal job it was). Recently, however, there has been the growing recognition that it really doesn't make sense to graduate lawyers unable to competently do the job they are about to be fully licensed to do, and one way law schools have responded is by investing in legal clinics.By and large, clinics are a good thing. They give students practical legal training by letting them basically do the job of a lawyer, with the benefit of supervision, as part of their legal education. In the process they acquire important skills and start to develop subject-matter expertise in the area the clinic focuses on, which can be in almost every practice area, including, as is relevant here, technology law. Meanwhile, clinics generally let students provide these legal services to clients far more affordably than clients would normally be able to obtain them, which partially helps address the access to justice problem.However, there are still some significant downsides to clinics, including the inescapable fact that it is students who are basically subsidizing the legal services they are providing by having to pay substantial amounts of money in tuition for the privilege of getting to do this work. A recurrent theme here is that law schools are notoriously expensive, often underwritten with loans, which means that students, instead of being paid for their work, are essentially financing the client's representation themselves.And that arrangement matters as policymakers remain inclined to impose regulations that increase the need for legal services without better considering how that need will be met. It has been too easy for too many to assume that these clinics will simply step in to fill the void, with an endless supply of students willing and able to pay to subsidize this system. Even if this supposition were true, it would still prompt the question of who these students are. The massive expense of law school is already shutting plenty of people out of the profession and robbing it of needed diversity by making it financially out of reach for too many, as well as making it impossible for those who do make it through to turn down more lucrative legal jobs upon graduation and take ones that would be more socially valuable instead. The last thing we need is a regulatory environment dependent on this teetering arrangement to perpetuate it.Yet that's the upshot of much of the policy lawmakers keep crafting. For instance, in the context of Section 1201 Rulemakings, it has been openly presumed that clinics would always be available to do the massive amount of work necessary to earn back for the public the right to do something it was already supposed to be legally allowed to do. But it's not just these cited examples of copyright or privacy law that are a problem; any time a statute or regulatory scheme establishes an unduly onerous compliance requirement, or reduces any of the immunities and safe harbors innovation has depended on, it puts a new strain on the legal profession, which now has to come up with the help from somewhere.At the same time, however, good policy doesn't mean necessarily eliminating the need for lawyers entirely, like the CASE Act tries to do. The bottom line is that legal services are not like other professional services. Lawyers play a critical role in upholding due process, and laws like the CASE Act that short-circuit those protections are a problem. But so are any laws that have the effect of interfering with that greater Constitutional purpose of the legal profession.For a society that claims to be devoted to the "rule of law," ensuring that the public can realistically obtain any of the legal help it needs should be a policy priority at least on par with anything else driving tech regulation. Lawmakers therefore need to take care in how they make policy to ensure they do not end up distorting the availability and affordability of legal services in the process. Such care requires (1) carefully calibrating the burden of any imposed policy to not unnecessarily drive up the need for lawyers, and (2) specifically asking the question: who will do the work. They cannot continue to simply leave "insert lawyers here" in their policy proposals and expect everything to be fine. If they don't also pointedly address exactly where it is these lawyers will come from then it won't be.

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posted at: 12:00am on 03-Mar-2021
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Not OK, Zoomer: Here's Why You Hate Videoconference Meetings -- And What To Do About It

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With much of the world in various states of lockdown, the videoconference meeting has become a routine part of many people's day, and a hated one. A fascinating paper by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, suggests that there are specific problems with videoconference meetings that have led to what has been called "Zoom fatigue", although the issues are not limited to that platform. Bailenson believes this is caused by "nonverbal overload", present in at least four different forms. The first involves eye gaze at a close distance:

On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships -- such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up -- has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.
There are two aspects here. One is the size of the face on the screen, and the other is the amount of time a person is seeing a front-on view of another person's face with eye contact. Bailenson points out that in another setting where there is a similar problem -- an elevator -- people typically look down or avert their glance in order to minimize eye contact with others. That's not so easy with videoconferencing, where looking away suggests lack of attention or loss of interest. Another problem with Zoom and other platforms is that people need to send extra nonverbal cues:
Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated. Examples include centering oneself in the camera's field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking.
According to Bailenson, research shows people speak 15% louder on videoconference calls compared to face-to-face interaction. Over a day, this extra effort mounts up. Also problematic is that it's hard to read people's head and eye movements -- important for in-person communication -- in a video call. Often they are looking at something that has popped up on their screen, or to the side, and it may be unclear whether the movement is a nonverbal signal about the conversation that is taking place. Another oddity of Zoom meetings is that participants generally see themselves for hours on end -- an unnatural and unnerving experience:
Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls. Even though one can change the settings to "hide self view," the default is that we see our own real-time camera feed, and we stare at ourselves throughout hours of meetings per day.
Finally, Bailenson notes that the design of cameras used for videoconferencing means that people tend to remain within a fairly tight physical space (the camera's "frustrum"):
because many Zoom calls are done via computer, people tend to stay close enough to reach the keyboard, which typically means their faces are between a half-meter and a meter away from the camera (assuming the camera is embedded in the laptop or on top of the monitor). Even in situations where one is not tied to the keyboard, the cultural norms are to stay centered within the camera's view frustrum and to keep one's face large enough for others to see. In essence users are stuck in a very small physical cone, and most of the time this equates to sitting down and staring straight ahead.
That's sub-optimal, because in face-to-face meetings, people move around: "they pace, stand up, stretch, doodle on a notepad, get up to use a chalkboard, even walk over to the water cooler to refill their glass", as Bailenson writes. That's important because studies show that movements help create good meetings. The narrow physical cone that most people inhabit during videoconferences is not just tiring, but reduces efficiency.The good news is that once you analyze what the problems are with Zoom and other platforms, it's quite straightforward to tweak the software to deal with them:
For example, the default setting should be hiding the self-window instead of showing it, or at least hiding it automatically after a few seconds once users know they are framed properly. Likewise, there can simply be a limit to how large Zoom displays any given head; this problem is simple technologically given they have already figured out how to detect the outline of the head with the virtual background feature.
Other problems can be solved by changing the hardware and office culture. For example, using an external webcam and external keyboard allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements. It might help to make audio-only Zoom meetings the default, or to use the old-fashioned telephone as an alternative to wall-to-wall videoconferencing. Exploring these changes is particularly important since it seems likely that working from home will remain an option or perhaps a requirement for many people, even after the current pandemic is brought under control. Now would be a good time to fight the fatigue it so often engenders.Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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posted at: 12:00am on 03-Mar-2021
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