The Challenges of Moderating User Content on the Internet (and a Bit of History)

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I increasingly suspect that the days of large-scale public distribution of unmoderated UGC (User Generated Content) on the Internet may shortly begin drawing to a close in significant ways. The most likely path leading to this over time will be a combination of steps taken independently by social media firms and future legislative mandates.

Such moderation at scale may follow the model of AI-based first-level filtering, followed by layers of human moderators. It seems unlikely that today’s scale of postings could continue under such a moderation model, but future technological developments may well turn out to be highly capable in this realm.

Back in 1985 when I launched my “Stargate” experiment to broadcast Usenet Netnews over the broadcast television vertical blanking interval of national “Superstation WTBS,” I decided that the project would only carry moderated Usenet newsgroups. Even more than 35 years ago, I was concerned about some of the behavior and content already beginning to become common on Usenet. My main related concerns back then did not involve hate speech or violent speech — which were not significant problems on the Net at that point — but human nature being what it is I felt that the situation was likely to get much worse rather than better.

What I had largely forgotten in the decades since then though, until I did a Google search on the topic today (a great deal of original or later information on Stargate is still online, including various of my relevant messages in very early mailing list archives that will likely long outlive me), is the level of animosity about that decision that I received at the time. My determination for Stargate to only carry moderated groups triggered cries of “censorship,” but I did not feel that responsible moderation equated with censorship — and that is still my view today.

And now, all these many years later, it’s clear that we’ve made no real progress in these regards. In fact, the associated issues of abuse of unmoderated content in hateful and dangerous ways makes the content problems that I was mostly concerned about back then seem like a soap bubble popping, compared with a nuclear bomb detonating now.

We must solve this. We must begin serious and coordinated work in this vein immediately. And my extremely strong preference is that we deal with these issues together as firms, organizations, customers, and users — rather than depend on government actions that, if history is any guide, will likely do enormous negative collateral damage.

Time is of the essence.