Monday, 3 September 2018

Sajid Javid is making technologically impossible demands

If you ever needed more proof that the Tory party is riddled with idiocy, consider the Tory Home Secretary Sajid Javid's latest demand that social media sites block child sex abuse images and videos before they've even been uploaded.

The problem here is obvious to anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of how the Internet actually works. Unless a file has been uploaded before, it's technologically impossible to know exactly what's being uploaded until it's actually uploaded, so threatening social media companies with fines and even shutdowns if they refuse to comply, is threatening to punish them for being incapable of doing the impossible.

This is the actual Home Secretary of the United Kingdom threatening sanctions against tech giants for refusal to comply with his technologically impossible demands!

If an image or file has been uploaded before, it is possible for social media sites to identify them by their SHA hash numbers, but this only works for images that have been previously uploaded and added to a database of forbidden content, and social media sites are already doing this kind of thing already os this can't be what Javid is on about.

Of course it would be possible for Javid to demand that the social media sites screen all uploaded content before it's published, but there a major issues with this interpretation because this post-upload pre-publication screening idea is clearly at odds with what Javid demanded, which is clearly screening before/during upload.

The only way it's possible to argue that he was calling for screening before publication, rather than screening before/during upload is to assume that he's so ignorant about the subject matter he's threatening to legislate on, that he literally doesn't understand the difference between uploading data, and publishing data.

Problems with pre-moderation

Even if we adopt the "good faith" interpretation of Javid's demand (that he's an ignorant buffoon who wants pre-screening of content before publication, but is too intellectually lazy to distinguish between the concept of uploading data to a server, and the concept of publishing data on a website) then there are still massive problems with what he's proposing.

Collective punishment

Is it really fair to collectively punish all UK citizens by subjecting them to lengthy pre-moderation of their Internet pictures, videos, and comments in an effort to clamp down on a small minority of criminals?

Why should people with no history of uploading criminal content be subjected to potentilly time-consuming screening procedures on all of their social media uploads?

Function creep

Once the infrastructure is in place to pre-moderate all social media uploads for criminality, surely those systems could be open to abuse.

Once you've established the principle that everything uploaded to the Internet needs to be pre-moderated before it gets published, surely it's only a matter of time before the state begins using these checks to screen for undesirable content such as critiques of government policy?

Even if function creep somehow doesn't occur in the UK, forcing the social media sites to develop pre-screening technology would surely hasten the decline of online freedoms elsewhere in the world. 

If Britain sets the precedent that social media companies can be forced to put the infrastructure in place to pre-moderate all social media uploads, surely tyrannical and authoritarian governments elsewhere would use this as a precedent to clamp down on what they define to be criminality (stuff like homosexuality, criticism of the government, discussion of forbidden topics, non-violent protest, calls for more democracy ...).


If UK-based journalists and political commentators are subjected to potentially time-consuming checks into the social media content they've uploaded, while journalists and commentators abroad are free to upload things automatically, surely this puts British people at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to leading the ever more rapid news cycle?

Should a political commentator based abroad really be given an artificial time advantage as political commentators based in Britain are subjected to pre-moderation of the content they've uploaded?


The idea that the social media giants could manually screen every single upload to their sites for elicit content before publication is almost the same scale of absurdity as the idea of screening content before it's even been uploaded.

Unless we envisage social media sites with tens of thousands of moderators manually trawling through everyone's uploads, it's clear that the vast bulk of Javid's pre-screenings would have to be undertaken by automated processes, which leaves us with the question of how much we trust algorithms to correctly identify child abuse text, images, videos. And how much we trust automatic processes when it comes to false positives.

How many completely innocent people getting censored, blocked, or banned from social media and falsely flagged as paedophiles would Javid consider acceptable?

What are Javid's proposals for redress and compensation for people who get falsely flagged as paedophiles because an algorithm mistook their children playing in the paddling pool or their beach pictures for child sex abuse images?

The Dark Web

Only the most incompetent of criminals would consider using social media netwerks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to share child sex abuse images, or conduct criminal transactions.

Most of this illicit online behaviour happens on the Dark Web, so in seeking to clamp down on the social media giants Sajid Javid is either so incompetent that he's going after the wrong targets, or he's well aware that they're the wrong targets, but he's just cynically using the issue of child sex abuse as an excuse to assert right-wing authoritarian control systems over the major social media platforms.

Live streams

One of the other demands Sajid Javid made in his speech addresses the problem of live-streamed abuse, which is a serious issue. 

But instead of offering anything resembling an actual policy to deal with it, he says he wants social media companies to shut down the abuse live streams (without explaining how they're supposed to detect them) and offers a paltry £250,000 in funding to "support new ideas on how to detect and disrupt live streamed abuse".

So one of his "demands" is more like an idle wish that something be done about the problem than an actual demand.


Of course the government and social media sites should be working to combat child sex abuse and other online criminality, but such blatant Internet illiteracy from the Tory Home Secretary is deeply concerning.

If he doesn't even understand the absolute basics of how the Internet works, like the difference between uploading data to a website's servers and the website publishing that data, then how on earth can we expect him to do a competent job of policing the Internet?

Even if we try to ignore the Internet illiteracy of what Javid is proposing and try to make some sense of it, it's still either a display of abject incompetence (pretty much ignoring the Dark Web to focus resources on the wrong targets, and his pitiful wishful thinking when it comes to the live streaming of abuse) or it's the sickening use of child sex abuse as a smokescreen to obscure a right-wing authoritarian power grab aimed at installing the means of censoring the British public through pre-moderation of all uploaded content.

Whatever the case, one thing shines through more clearly than anything else. Sajid Javid is badly unsuited to the extremely important job he's been charged with.

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