This is a profile of Makhno, a Mozilla Tech Fund awardee. Tracking Exposed and the Hermes Center have joined forces to hold corporations accountable for censoring certain types of content.
Breasts belonging to women are not allowed on Instagram or TikTok. If a user posts content with exposed breasts, the content is taken down. If a user adds music to a video that they do not have legal right to use because of copyright laws, they too will have their content removed. Content removal is not an abnormal phenomenon. Websites have rules and regulations that dictate what will and won’t be allowed on their platforms. However, sometimes the reasons content is taken down are not so explicit and in other instances it happens under nefarious circumstances.
In 2020, researchers at the University of Michigan also found that internet censorship has increased in democracies around the world. This is where Makhno, a platform (currently at prototype phase) by Tracking Exposed and the Hermes Center, offers a solution — by tracking and reporting on content takedowns.
“Content removal is the punitive action of companies towards creators. Sometimes this action is morally justified, sometimes politically justified, sometimes it's an exchange of favors, or a content moderator's bias, or the re-proposition of social policies from which we would like to distance ourselves,” says Claudio Agosti, founder of Tracking Exposed.
The Russian invasion in Ukraine forced the platform to take new geographically determined content discrimination.
We are aware of the ever-increasing dangers that platforms and corporations pose to all of us in terms of digital rights and freedom. Among these dangers, censorship is one of the worst and, in perspective, one of the most worrying.
Davide Del Monte, director of the Hermes Center
“We saw, for example, Google translating "war" into a kremlin friendly for Google translate. Youtube demonetizing Russian related channels. And the first Tracking Exposed report on TikTok highlights how content in Russia is displayed only if it belongs to a Russian citizen. In our second report, we saw the rise of geographic content demotion, promotion, or suppression in platforms as they adopted national policies. The Russian invasion is the event that made companies go one step further - far from being neutral. Makhno is the technical component to help us monitor that,” Agosti adds.
The team at Makhno are aiming to have the platform as a free software library by 2023. A highly collaborative project, the Makhno team also plans to work with the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI). They will also benefit from ura.design and are supported by the Secure Usability and Accessibility Lab.
“We are aware of the ever-increasing dangers that platforms and corporations pose to all of us in terms of digital rights and freedom. Among these dangers, censorship is one of the worst and, in perspective, one of the most worrying. We truly believe that a more transparent and open process of moderation can make the internet a safer place for everyone” says Davide Del Monte, director of the Hermes Center.
The corporations that impose these policies are secretive about their logic, hypocritical in their public pronouncements, oppress discussion with NDAs, and take responsibility away from them by subcontracting this work to distant workers.
Claudio Agosti, founder of Tracking Exposed
The goal of this project is to expose censorship implemented by corporations and team up with those who suffer the abuses.
By doing this, Makhno aims to keep digital corporations accountable and to increase transparency around content moderation, and more subtle forms of algorithmic demotion.
“The corporations that impose these policies are secretive about their logic, hypocritical in their public pronouncements, oppress discussion with NDAs, and take responsibility away from them by subcontracting this work to distant workers. Where possible they adopt algorithms, implicitly trained to be conservative, incomplete, and amoral,” says Agosti.
While there is a desire to have all the data Makhno collects shared openly, Agosti says there are concerns around protection of individuals and privacy.
“Similarly to OONI, we publish this data as open data. The only issue is that we shouldn’t automatically release all the content that has been taken down (because it might contain abusive material) and, based on the kind of social media under scrutiny, personal data of any user might appear, so we need to guarantee a robust sanitization procedure,” says Agosti.
We interviewed merchants who could do without Google Analytics, but they say that most of their traffic comes from Google, so maybe it's better for them to keep it.
Claudio Agosti, founder of Tracking Exposed
Another challenge for Makhno is getting people to actually buy into their idea and submit content takedown reports.
“Internet platforms aren’t just uncooperative, but exploitative of soft power. For example, we interviewed content creators to whom we offer tools to control their algorithm on YouTube. (As part of youchoose.ai - check session on mozfest.) And they say that the idea is nice, but they would never want to lose YouTube's favor. We interviewed merchants who could do without Google Analytics, but they say that most of their traffic comes from Google, so maybe it's better for them to keep it,” says Agosti.
The “connected citizenry” suffer from what Agosti refers to as “a form of psychological slavery from corporations.” The reliance on these platforms and acceptance of their monopolies are cause for concern. Agosti says Makhno is not a solution but rather, addressing a power problem that can only be solved by a fediverse - a network of interconnected servers of different sites that communicate with one another.
While these challenges do exist, Makhno is aiming to have a mobile platform that works by the end of the year.
“The idea is to have something that works on mobile, with which a person can nimbly report a link that needs to be monitored, and also submit to us a minimal amount of information as to why they should ever be at risk. We invite you to check out the report released, and our github repository, please consider reaching out if you are independent and fluent in: browser extension, typescript, telegram bot, html parsing” says Agosti.
If you want to help in designing Makhno, please participate in the survey at this link: https://cloud.ura.design/apps/forms/eAkKKzDbgw6iqZ6w.