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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

#BackDontBlock: He Shoots, And Scores!

Without voices to oppose, we do not have debate, and end up with a society which is controlled by those with the power to control

Let’s take a scenario. An advertiser for baby milk will not want their content to sit alongside a news item where there has been a killing at a school. Someone reading the story may then feel horror at the shooting, and which is likely to have a negative effect on the brand. It is thus well known that most advertisers do not want to advertise their products when there is a critical news item, and where the advertisement can just feel trivial. Thus, for years, advertisers have defined the conditions in which their adverts should appear. In newspapers this is often a well-crafted art, and where the whole newspaper is laid out, in order to provide a good space for advertisers, and which will comply with their restrictions.

Our world is increasingly driven by the Internet, and our old model of the media is struggling. But we must worry about our longer-term right to free speech when social media and cloud service companies set blanket restrictions on content. While I do not personally believe in those protesting against the lock-down, we must worry as a society that Facebook has started to filter content, without governments even getting involved:

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On the other side of social media blocking of content, we see threats to journalism. Where would we be in probing our world, if it wasn’t for journalists investigating around the edges of things, and using their skills to think deeply about a topic? This has been at the bedrock of our free societies, and it needs to be supported wherever possible. But the companies who run social media now have the power — on a global scale — and to define the content that is allowed, and which is not allowed. While this could come down to human judgement, it is often just focused on filtering with simple keywords.

For many advertisers, there is a strong focus on making sure that the brands they support must not appear with something that would affect them. For example, an advert for chicken soup is unlikely to be placed beside an animal rights advert related to the treatment of chickens within a poultry farm. The Internet, though, is often fairly simple in its filtering, and where a children’s charity might define that it does not want to appear within an article related to “shoot” or “shooting”. But on the sports page, we may have the content of “The striker failed to shoot, as the defender made a last gasp tackle”. In an online world, this could be automatically blocked with a keyword of “shoot”.

And so, UK newspapers are generally struggling, especially with people not going to shops and buying their content. For printed versions of newspapers, the advertisers will often define conditions about how they want their adverts to be seen, and editors will make sure that there is no brand damage for the content in the paper. The move is thus towards online content, but, as this will be dynamic, there is often a set of keywords that are applied so that an advert will not appear within an article with certain keywords. And, at the moment, there is one keyword that few want to be associated with:


Thus the body representing UK newspapers (Newsworks) has launched the #backdontblock campaign, and which aims to soften the restrictions on the advertising ‘blocklist’:

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Newsworks estimate that around £50million will be lost in advertising revenue within the current pandemic, and that could rise if it last longer than three months. The message is simple:

“Remove coronavirus from your blocklists”

The Internet we have is the Internet we deserve. With pressures from governments, companies like Google and Facebook are increasingly policing the Internet. We need our great journalists like never before, so please support them to probe this ever increasingly complex world. If anything, Google, Facebook, and other social media platforms will come out of this stronger than ever and will have an ever-increasing control on our lives. Without voices to oppose, we do not have a debate and end up with a society which is controlled by those with power.

Written by

Professor of Cryptography. Serial innovator. Believer in fairness, justice & freedom. EU Citizen. Auld Reekie native. Old World Breaker. New World Creator.

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