Can we moderate the Internet?
Well, with over 550 billion websites, the short answer is: no. But read on! I’m talking specifically about the moderation of paedophilic and sexual content, an issue thrust once again under the spotlight by a recent Channel 4 investigation into the internet phenomenon ‘Habbo Hotel’. For those of you who have never played Habbo Hotel (fine, I admit it … I played it, okay? I PLAYED IT AND I WAS THIRTEEN AND I’M NOT EVEN SORRY) we’re talking about a virtual hotel, where users can choose an avatar, customise it, give it a name and use it to essentially explore the hotel, talking to other users and paying real money for online credits which buy you furniture and items to decorate your room or to simply trade. I’m sure you get the picture by now, so far so fun. However, the kind folks over at Channel 4 have taken a break from whatever it is they do all day to deliver a report on the abuses of this online medium; it says nothing we haven’t heard before, but it still raises important and relevant questions about its moderation, both in this instance and more generally.
The existence of sexual predators on the internet is not the main complaint here, they’re not exactly accepted but do seem to be understood as a fact of everyday internet life. Rather, the preoccupation is with minimising their impact on the average internet user. In the confines of Habbo Hotel this user is one of 250 million, and it is when dealing with these kind of numbers that the question of moderation becomes a lot more complicated.
Paul LaFontaine, the chief executive of the company which owns the website, assures us that the correct measures are in place to combat the threat: ‘Habbo’s moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis’. Erm. Right. Is it just me or is there a massive discrepancy here? 225 moderators are most certainly not tracking 70 million lines of text a day, especially considering they would be operating in different languages and split across different time zones. Furthermore, I can assure you that there is not the slightest chance they are getting paid enough to actually care about flagging up the inappropriate comments nestled in their average 311,111 lines of allotted text a day, especially not when most users just can’t help but ‘OMG! A/S/L?? ROFL 😉 WTF!? BFF <3′. Moderate that.
Channel 4 recognises the most dangerous comments to be not only those which contain explicit and overt sexual content, but also those which ask the user to move away from the fairly basic private messaging function of the website to other ways of online contact, such as Skype or MSN. These are not only better suited to short-term or even long-term conversation, but more tellingly are interfaces which facilitate the use of webcam.
The jail sentence of Matthew Leonard is illustrative of both a failed system of moderation and the ease in which thetransition from virtual reality to actual reality can take place. The case involved 21-year-old Leonard using Habbo Hotel to contact the majority of his 80 victims, luring young girls from the age of ten away from the site in return for items of furniture they could use in the game. Once they were using webcam, he would persuade them to perform sexual acts, recording them to repeatedly use as blackmail for more material.
This is one of only two cases which has gone as far as court, but is nonetheless a frequent occurrence on the site. Back in the halcyon days of my time as a ‘Habbo’ I remember getting these kind of requests daily; my dad took to calling it ‘Paedo Hotel’ and my mum flat-out forbid me from using it again. No prizes for guessing who wins here in the parental stakes. Never once was I contacted by a moderator, nor was I responded to when I contacted one myself in a fit of moral obligation to the cause. It seemed to me that on the internet, for better or for worse, I was on my own.
I have long since upgraded to Facebook and feel that I set up my profile at the age of sixteen with a certain amount of internet awareness, albeit gained only through the trial and error of previous personal experience. Most of us use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a way to keep in contact with friends, or follow people who interest us. Assuming you aren’t an internet troll, the presence of your real friends on Facebook often means that you moderate your own online behaviour to fit in with your public persona, making it therefore much more unlikely for you to do or say something online which you wouldn’t consider in real life.
This is not to say that sites such as Facebook and Twitter are immune from sexual predators, how many of you have received a wholly inappropriate private or even public message from someone you don’t even know? However, we are old enough, experienced enough and I would probably even go as far as to say wise enough to follow the best course of action (upload a screen shot, naturally). But then again, we are the internet generation. With increasingly more confusing changes over privacy settings, you can bet that there are thousands of children signing up daily with no idea how to stay protected online, being groomed by paedophiles as they send on chain emails to ensure they’ll be kissed on Friday by the love of their life, logging on as they take a break from transferring their pocket money to a Nigerian bank account.
It seems that this is the problem, it is unrealistic to expect that children will keep away from social networking sites, indeed they exercise the internet know-how but worryingly this is combined with an inevitable childlike naïvety. Although responsibility certainly lies with their parents to curb their online activity, this has undeniably become more difficult in the prevailing age of the smart phone and the laptop. As daily life increasingly incorporates virtual reality, and our virtual life incorporates more and more aspects of our real life, it becomes clear that the rules of our interaction are confusing and in a constant state of flux. It’s hardly surprising that the reality of moderation has not only been left behind but also made near-impossible.
It seems to me that the best way to tackle the problem is to teach children about internet safety in a direct way, for instance, in the classroom. We were all taught not to get into the van with that stranger (however good those sherbert lemons looked) so why not teach it in its modernised form? There are initiatives already in place to educate children, but these seem to differ from school to school and are not standardised in any way, which in 2012 seems frankly a little ridiculous. Either that or bring back dial-up connection and internet activity would instantly be cut in half, I guarantee you.
This would be more suited to the fact that the internet is an almost entirely self-regulated industry. Even though we are beginning to see the clash between the internet and certain governing bodies, such as the arrest and subsequent sentencing of Liam Stacey who tweeted racist remarks about footballer Fabrice Muamba, or the SOPA/PIPA movement, it still seems the way we conduct ourselves online remains mostly unaffected by these official, regulating forces.
Recently, India attempted to hold over 20 websites including Google, Youtube and Facebook accountable for their content by asking them to remove ‘inflammatory material’ and pre-screen any objectionable content. Lets cut a long story short: in no way is this technically possible, it simply cannot be done. In this attempt to exercise control over the internet, the Indian domains of many of these websites have been forced to delete and filter any controversial content, all Google bloggers must change from a ‘.com’ to a ‘.in’ address to enable their posts to be monitored. This is not a change without opposition, and much like the SOPA/PIPA debate, draws on questions of regulation vs. freedom of speech. Moreover, in a country with a population of over 1 billion, the long-term feasibility of this measure can certainly be called into question. Lets just hope they’re planning on using more than the 225 moderators employed by Habbo Hotel.
There’s very little conclusion to such a question, and reports such as Channel 4’s latest highlight problems without giving much in the way of an answer. Yes, things need to change, but what? And how? At least they’ve passed on the findings to the government so we can all rest assured it will be dealt with quickly and efficiently. Until it is, don’t bother with Habbo Hotel, I know a great little B&B down in Portswood instead..