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The rise of 'User-Generated Censorship'

07 May, 2008
By Allison Orr

While powerful institutions such as governments and corporations develop increasingly sophisticated ways to censor the net, and users find ways around it, a new kind of censorship is appearing online – user-generated censorship.

This newly coined phrase describes a phenomenon whereby collaborative social networks get together to flag content as “inappropriate” and get it hidden or even removed.  Flagging is a kind of filtering system used by social network sites to highlight articles and remove content that is illegal, inappropriate or harmful.  If you get enough flags against your comments/site/blog entry, the owner of the site may remove your content entirely.  At a minimum, content receiving many flags will become "hidden" so that there are no direct links to it and it gets lost in a deluge of user-generated content.  While flagging allows many social networking sites to be largely self-governing, there is also a downside.  Any user can decide that content is “inappropriate” and flag it, and get together a group of other users to do the same.  This process is arbitrary and can be used unfairly against people expressing unpopular opinions.  Those silenced usually have very little recourse for appeal.

Says Annalee Newitz (who coined the term) in the San Fransisco Bay Guardian: "just as the Web is making it easier for crowds to collaborate, the Web is also making it simple for mobs to crush free expression."

In the QuestionPro blog, Vivek Bhaskaran gives a few comments on the feedback and discussion at a talk given by Newitz on this subject, including the following points:

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