The ethics of search filtering and big data: who decides ?

[Reflecting on discussions at the recent UK Internet Policy Forum, this post argues that societies as moral communities need to take a greater share in the decision-making about controversial issues on the web, such as search filtering and the use of open data. It won’t do to expect tech companies and data collectors to settle questions of ethics.]

Last week I was part of the large and engaged audience at the UK Internet Policy Forum meeting, convened by Nominet. The theme was ‘the Open Internet and the Digital Economy’, and the sessions I attended were on filtering and archiving, and on the uses of Big Data. And the two were bound together by a common underlying theme.

That theme was the relative responsibilities of tech providers, end users and government (and regulators, and legislators) to solve difficult issues of principle: of what should (and should not) be available through search; and which data about persons should truly be regarded as personal, and how they should be used.

On search: last autumn there was a wave of public, and then political concern about the risk of child pornography being available via search engine results. Something Should Be Done, it was said. But the issue – child pornography – was so emotive, and legally so clear-cut, that important distinctions were not clearly articulated. The production and distribution of images of this kind would clearly be in contravention of the law, even if no-one were ever to view them. And a recurring theme during the day was that these cases were (relatively) straightforward – if someone shows up with a court order, search engines will remove that content from their results, for all users; so will the British Library remove archived versions of that content from the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive.

Monitor padlock
But there are several classes of other web content about which no court order could be obtained. Content may well directly or indirectly cause harm to those who view it. But because that chain of causation is so dependent on context and so individual, no parliament could legislate in advance to stop the harm occurring, and no algorithm could hope to predict that harm would be caused. I myself am not harmed by a site that provides instructions on how to take one’s own life; but others may well be. There is also another broad category of content which causes no immediate and directly attributable harm, but might in the longer term conduce to a change in behaviour (violent movies, for instance). There is also content which may well cause distress or offence (but not harm); on religious grounds, say. No search provider can be expected to intuit which elements of this content should be removed entirely from search, or suggest to end users as the kind of thing they might not want to see.

These decisions need to be taken at a higher level and in more general terms. It depends on the existence of the kind of moral consensus which was clearly visible at earlier times in British history, but which has become weakened if not entirely destroyed since the ‘permissive’ legislation of the Sixties. The system of theatre censorship was abolished in the UK in 1968 because it had become obvious that there was no public consensus that it was necessary or desirable. A similar story could be told about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, or the reform of the law on blasphemy in 2008. As Dave Coplin of Microsoft put it, we need to decide collectively what kind of society we want; once we know that, we can legislate for it, and the technology will follow.

The second session revolved around the issue of big data and privacy. Much can be dealt with by getting the nature of informed consent correct, although it is hard to know what ‘informed’ means; difficult to imagine in advance all the possible uses that data might be used, in order both to put and to answer the question ‘Do you consent?’.

But once again, the issues are wider than this, and it isn’t enough to declare that privacy must come first, as if this settled the issue. As Gilad Rosner suggested, the notion of personal data is not stable over time, or consistent between cultures. The terms of use of each of the world’s web archives are different, because different cultures have privileged different types of data as being ‘private’ or ‘personal’ or ‘sensitive’. Some cultures focus more on data about one’s health, or sexuality, or physical location, or travel, or mobile phone usage, or shopping patterns, or trade union membership, or religious affiliation, or postal address, or voting record and political party membership, or disability. None of these categories is self-evidently more or less sensitive than any of the others, and – again – these are decisions that need to be determined by society at large.

Tech companies and data collectors have responsibilities – to be transparent about the data they do have, and to co-operate quickly with law enforcement. They also must be part of the public conversation about where all these lines should be drawn, because public debate will never spontaneously anticipate all the possible use cases which need to be taken into account. In this we need their help. But ultimately, the decisions about what we do and don’t want must rest with us, collectively.

The Church of England and theatre censorship

I was delighted yesterday to find on my doormat Studies in Church History 48 (2012), in which there is my own article on the archbishops of Canterbury and theatre censorship between 1909-49. It is available direct from Boydell and Brewer or from the Ecclesiastical History Society, or at an academic library near you. It will not be available on Open Access for a while yet, but for now, here is an edited extract which gives a flavour of the whole.

[from the Introduction]

“The position of the archbishop of Canterbury at the heart of the Establishment engendered requests to be patron, advocate or opponent of almost every conceivable development in national life. One such entanglement was his role as unofficial advisor to the Lord Chamberlain in the matter of the licensing of stage plays.  According to the report of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on the system, the Lord Chamberlain was able to refuse to a licence to any play that was likely ‘to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, to be indecent, or ‘to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice’. It was on matters such as these that from time to time the Lord Chamberlain’s office would consult the archbishop.

“Despite the apparent oddity of a senior churchman being asked to adjudicate on artistic matters such as this, the matter has hitherto received little attention from religious historians to match that given to the censorship of the cinema and to the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. It receives scant attention also from successive archiepiscopal biographers, due perhaps to its apparently epiphenomenal nature. The role of the archbishops is treated in passing in general accounts of the censorship, but by its very nature this scholarship has not treated the theme directly.

“Taking as its period the forty years from the Joint Select Committee report in 1909 to the unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to reform the system in 1949, this article details the curious unofficial position of the archbishops within the system of censorship. The various grounds on which Archbishops Randall Davidson (1903–28) and Cosmo Gordon Lang (1928–42) in particular offered their advice to the Lord Chamberlain are then examined. The article thus provides a case study of the singular and often anomalous position of the archbishop at the heart of the Establishment in Britain, and the extent to which the secular and ecclesiastical powers combined in the regulation of the life of the nation, both moral and aesthetic. In addition, it examines a unique nodal point in the interaction between the Church and the arts.

[from the Conclusion]

“In 1940 Colin Gordon of the Lord Chamberlain’s office solicited Lang’s opinion on the play Family Portrait by the American playwrights Lenore and William Joyce Cowen. A.C. Don, Lang’s chaplain, accepted the ‘obvious reverence and restraint’ of the script but raised some fundamental concerns. The first issue was the portrayal of the brothers and sisters of Christ, the very non-existence of whom was a matter of some importance to Roman Catholics and to some within the Church of England. The second was the downplaying of the incarnation to the extent that Christ appeared as solely an ethical teacher, although a great one. Don concluded that the play ought not to be licensed in the usual way.

“Here was the archbishop’s representative advising in accustomed fashion. When called upon, Davidson and Lang had advised on the licensing of plays on a number of different grounds: the likelihood of incitement to vice; of gratuitous offence to religious people; and, more controversially, of theological or artistic defect. They helped shape the formulation of guiding principles, and advised in cases where there was doubt.

“It is, however, an indication of the degree to which the situation had changed by 1940 that Family Portrait had in fact already been licensed the previous year, without reference to Lambeth at all; and the exchange was one of the last of its kind. After a peak in the 1920s and early 1930s, there had been a marked decline in the number of plays referred to Lambeth. Lang’s successors William Temple (1942–44) and Geoffrey Fisher were seldom consulted, although Fisher was kept informed of major changes in policy, such as the relaxation of restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality in 1958. One of Fisher’s few interventions was to reinforce the longstanding ban on the representation of God in The Green Pastures in 1951, a decision reinforced by Michael Ramsey ten years later. So it was that the single stipulation relating to the impersonation of the persons of the Trinity was by 1949 the only remaining matter on which the archbishops advised the Lord Chamberlain.

“I hope elsewhere to continue the story beyond 1949, and to treat of the attitude of Anglicans to the final abolition of theatre censorship in 1968. Anglican support for abolition was in part fostered by the manifest anachronism of the remaining rule and its stultifying effect on religious drama within the Church. That aside, the operation of the system to 1949 is demonstrative of some governing assumptions concerning the joint operation of church and state in the regulation of morals; of understandings of the appropriate modes of representing the national faith; and of some of the tensions in the relationship between the church and the arts.

The Church and literature

I’ve just finished correcting the proofs of my article on the archbishops of Canterbury and the censorship of the theatre between 1909 and 1949, which is destined to appear in Studies in Church History vol. 48 this summer. It can be pre-ordered on the Boydell and Brewer site, which has a list of the contents. Re-reading it after 18 months, I’m still pleased with it, although the re-reading has suggested some new questions to pursue, about which I’ll blog another time. There’s a brief summary of the article here.

It isn’t always that themed volumes such as these that the Ecclesiastical History Society produce are so squarely in one of my areas of interest, but this one certainly is. It can be read as a companion to SCH 28 (1992), which was on ‘The Church and the Arts’ and contains several articles which remain the most recent word on their subjects. I was at the St Andrews conference that spawned the forthcoming volume, and as one of the session chairs was involved in the EHS’s normal peer review process, and am looking forward to reading the final versions of several of the papers I heard. Judith Maltby writes on Rose Macaulay, Stuart Mews on the Lady Chatterley trial, and Crawford Gribben on rapture fiction. There are also several pieces on twentieth century representations of the medieval past, by Sarah Foot and Stella Fletcher amongst others.

[Update: see a summary of the published article]

The church and censorship of the theatre

I’m delighted to be able to announce that an article of mine on this subject has been accepted for a forthcoming volume of Studies in Church History. There are some revisions to make, but it examines the private correspondence between the archbishops of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain over stage plays that were received for licensing between 1909 and 1949. Dealing mostly with archbishops Davidson and Lang, it examines the grounds on which the archbishops advised for or against the licensing of plays, and situates the relationship between archbishop and Lord Chamberlain in relation to the peculiar position of Cantuar at the heart of the ‘establishment’. It should appear in 2012.

[Update: see a summary of the published version]