Law in the Internet Society

Trolls and the middle ground: Middleware as an option in the Philippines?

-- By SamanthaBeatriceKing - 06 Jan 2022


In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidency on a social media campaign carried by trolls. Afterwards, Duterte promptly appointed bloggers and social media influencers acting as trolls to government positions. With the next presidential elections in 2022, the use of trolls shows no signs of slowing down.

In the first place, trolls have found traction because of the platform itself. The root cause is Facebook’s algorithms. Online trolls, who maximize usage by generating thousands of posts and comments on a divisive topic, benefit from these algorithms. Ultimately, Facebook’s algorithms do not distinguish between fact and fiction; it decides what users see on their feed.

When you have a head of state so willing to utilize (or weaponize) trolls, a developing country with a young, social media-savvy population, and a technology platform notorious for exploiting divisiveness—what can be done?

Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa, a longtime target of pro-Duterte trolls, has called for “emergency intervention” in social media. Specifically, Ressa has mentioned the need for legislation as a first step.

The next question concerns the form that this legislation should take.

Drawing from Francis Fukuyama’s concept of “middleware,” this essay briefly examines the feasibility of mandating middleware use in the Philippines; the drawbacks of requiring the use of such software; and possible alternatives.

Middleware as content curator

To deconsolidate power from Facebook and similar platforms, Fukuyama proposes outsourcing content curation to a competitive layer of “middleware companies.” Middleware is software that rides on top of an existing internet or social media platform that can tweak how the underlying data is presented to users. For example, such middleware service could flag misleading posts, rate the credibility of news sources, or block certain content. The goal is to subvert the platform’s algorithms by giving users control over the material they see. Middleware will not eradicate fake news, but the hope is that it will prevent Facebook’s algorithms from artificially enlarging such news by content filtering.

Legislation and middleware

Despite consistently ranking first in social media usage, the Philippines has no law regulating social media and the proliferation of fake news. In contrast, neighboring countries like Vietnam and Indonesia have enacted regulations forcing technology companies to store information on local servers, and provides for sweeping notice and takedown orders, among others. The problem from this end is the serious threat to free speech.

Middleware is supposedly the middle ground. To sidestep the problem of government controlling online content and suppressing free speech, the idea is that these platforms should be required to give their users the option to filter their content with middleware.

Since freedom of expression is constitutionally protected in the Philippines, Congress theoretically cannot pass any law preventing, much less prosecuting, people from posting misleading opinions or “fake news.”

To rein in fake news and the troll farms amplifying such content, Congress may, in theory, require Facebook to interconnect with middleware as a condition to continue operations in the Philippines. Similar to the UK’s Online Harms Bill, Congress can impose on social media platforms operating in the country a “duty of care” to protect users from harmful content. Among the ways this “duty of care” can be operationalized is precisely by requiring these companies to open their systems to middleware.

And while the idea is that this middleware should be chosen by consumers, it is unlikely that Filipinos will want to spend on middleware to moderate their feeds. One possibility is that the government itself procure middleware software through competitive bidding, and then mandate users to install the same. Considering the likelihood of state abuse, however, this is not an ideal scenario. Congress may open the market in any case, providing tax incentives for middleware providers to come forward and apply for accreditation before offering their services to the public.

The private sector can also chip in—media outlets, internet service providers, or independent organizations could offer or sponsor middleware services for users. The Philippine government can, in turn, incentivize these private players with tax benefits.

Inherent flaws and possible alternatives

Of course, reality is always more complicated. Despite my lack of knowledge, I can see that the middleware proposal is difficult to execute, practically and logistically. Even if Congress finds the political will, Duterte can simply exercise his veto powers. After all, his administration benefits the most from the use of trolls. And assuming Philippine legislation opens such a market, will there even be middleware providers that have the capacity to filter the massive amounts of data from Facebook and the like? What would be their standards for ranking, labeling, and diluting content?

On a more fundamental level, there is no way to ensure social media users will filter their feed with credible news sources. It is more likely that users would choose options that strongly resembles their own biases, thereby perpetuating, on a lesser scale, the ills sought to be regulated in the first place.

Perhaps instead of indirectly regulating social media platforms through middleware, the Philippines could follow the example of the UK and EU in requiring the platforms themselves to take responsibility for user safety. In lieu of relying on middleware providers to dilute Facebook’s algorithms, for instance, Congress can require tech companies “to have appropriate systems and processes in place to tackle harmful content and activity.” If Facebook fails to remove such harmful content, it could face fines or be blocked from operating in the Philippines.

Though this idea appears simpler without a third-party provider, it is its own Pandora’s Box. Should Facebook be given even more power by allowing it to define, and act upon, “harmful” content? Where does the line cross into censorship? What about the users’ agency?

Middleware is an imperfect, surface-level remedy. At this time, however, it may be the most palatable proposal in the Philippine context. Whatever the case, three things remain indispensable: strong regulatory intervention, the cooperation of big tech, and the vigilance of civil society.

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r3 - 07 Jan 2022 - 03:18:31 - SamanthaBeatriceKing
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