We all post on social media. Whether it be sharing thoughts on legislation on Twitter, commenting on a friend’s status on Facebook, or even scrolling through TikTok, these platforms have become a large part of our lives.
But that doesn’t mean we can post just anything, as these platforms can limit, control and censor what we write. And while that’s a cause for concern, some content moderation is also desirable, particularly in an age of widespread mis- and dis-information.
Last month, UNC launched a new Center on Technology Policy to study those issues.
Director Matt Perault said the new center aims to be engaged in shaping how practitioners think, both on the industry level and at the government level.
“We’re not an advocacy organization,” Perault said. “We’re not lobbyists. But we really want to be engaged in the policy process to come up with the frameworks that policymakers can use to make the internet better.”
Technology programming at UNC is not new. The law school hosts a Media Law and Policy Center whereas the School of Information and Library Science hosts a Center on Information Technology and Public Life. The new UNC Center on Technology Policy will also be housed within the School of Information and Library Science.
One of the Center’s goals is to offer public policy solutions to improve tech and online content. It’s been releasing materials like policy briefs, podcasts and research papers. Several resources have been published since the center’s launch, including a guide co-authored by Perault and Scott Babwah Brennen, the Center’s head of online expression policy.
That guide provides a set of 13 recommendations for states to make meaningful improvements in online expression. They are grouped into the categories of “understanding,” “enforcement,” and “investment.”
“The goal here is to identify things that will make a meaningful difference, but that are also legal,” Babwah Brennen said. “I think that’s what sort of held back a lot of the state action so far. We’ve seen literally dozens of bills being introduced across state houses. Frankly, a lot of these bills haven’t gotten anywhere and are not really going to go anywhere.”
Babwah Brennen cited two bills which passed in Texas and Florida but were stopped by the courts. He said recommendations within the “understanding” category are aimed at better grasping the harms and effects of problematic content, as well as content moderation.
“Far too much of the research has been at the national or international level or at the platform level,” Babwah Brennen said. “But the real harms of problematic content actually happen in real communities on the ground. I think there’s a real opportunity for state governments or local governments to do more to help us understand their sort of impacts.”
Perault said North Carolina is one of the few states which has passed a regulatory sandbox model. This allows companies to experiment with new products without a risk of having enforcement against them.
Within the tech industry, Perault said this sort of experimentation is mainly within the financial sector. But he said he hopes this type of model could be expanded to explore other types of interventions – both government and corporate – in addition to content policy.
“This area is really complicated,” Perault said. “It’s very easy to identify the problems and say, ‘I don’t like that piece of content,’ or ‘I was censored on that platform,’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ It’s very, very difficult to come up with smart solutions that make the internet better. We think experimentation will give us some insights that will hopefully allow us to understand what are smart policy regimes in this area.”
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