User-Generated Content. Overview of policy needs

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-Background and authorship info- Part of the Mirzayan fellowship was to propose topics on wich to write a policy paper. This is the topic I submitted and 10 other fellows joined. This is the result of 2 weeks of work. Some of the authors requested their authorship to remain internal to NAS. Therefore, I am not including names besides mine. Also you will note many similarities with my individual brief, in wich I concentrated into the subtopic of Crowdsourcing development.

Defining the Issue

With the burgeoning use of Internet and mobile phone technology, user-generated content (UGC) has emerged as an innovative means of sharing data. In the last decade, subscriptions to mobile phones rose from 18% to 97% in the developed world, and from 1% to 45% in the developing world. Internet subscriptions increased 10-fold in the last 10 years, reaching now 20% of the world population. Facebook—launched in 2004— now has over 500 million users (half of users, ~5% of the world’s population, access Facebook every day). Twitter has grown to 100 million users worldwide since beginning in 2006. In 2010, Twitter hit 50 million tweets per day—an average of 600 tweets per second. This brief defines UGC as any type of data gathered or released electronically using mobile phones or digital devices with internet (e.g., smart phone, laptops, iPads, etc.) that may be accessed by any one or a number of individuals. UGC has shown promising advances in a broad variety of fields (e.g., epidemiological surveillance, crisis response, and e-governance, among many others). While there are substantial benefits and great potential in leveraging stakeholder information for personal and societal benefit, this rapidly evolving technology has outpaced regulatory policies, raising many concerns.


Stakeholders include members of both the public and private sectors: individuals, advocacy groups, domestic and international governments, policy organizations, and industry. Individuals and advocacy groups create and disseminate UGC. Governments can supply and support the use of technological resources, increase access and encourage constituents’ participation. The private sector can contribute to the development of emerging technologies and provide resources to spur innovation.

Policy Implications

There are five major policy implications relating to utilization of UGC: privacy, credibility, responsibility, accessibility, and globalization and national interests. Privacy One prominent example of privacy concerns is evidenced in the use of user-generated content for epidemiological surveillance through mediums like GoogleFlu, while the use of data generated from social networking sites raises other privacy issues. When using these technologies, users participate without a precise understanding of who owns the rights to the data or results that are generated from it. While many sites contain privacy policies, these policies are often unclear, hidden, or in fine print. In addition, analyses of UGC do not have approval from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that is required for clinical research on human subjects. As a result, there are no limits for the use of the data. Many websites utilize cookies, beacons and other monitors to track an individual’s information after they have visited a site. Users are often not required to sign an authorized disclosure for information to be released about them allowing marketers to target individuals according to their search histories, e-mails, and interests.  Some technologies have taken steps to increase privacy awareness by creating user controls, which have been highly utilized by parents to filter information for minors. However, locating the controls is often difficult and utilization rates are not completely widespread. Credibility Recently, UGC has been innovatively used for crisis mapping in natural disasters as well as for the monitoring of human rights violations. However, the organization and systematic dissemination of UGC raises concerns about the credibility of the data and its verification. In a crisis situation, crowd-sourced information can be complimentary to information gathered by recognized official sources and can work in concert with formal assessments to fill information gaps. Crisis mappers are actively developing techniques to improve data credibility: using data triangulation efforts, information gathering from networks of trusted reporters (“bounded crowd-sourcing”), and veracity filtering, wherein mobile phone and Internet sources of information are tracked with unique IDs and ranked according to their record of accuracy. Similarly, human rights groups have developed strategies to deal with data verification concerns. Since their reports often involve singling out perpetrators of human rights abuses, human rights organizations have to ensure that the data they report is extremely credible to maintain their legitimacy.  To that end, human rights organization conduct independent investigations in order to verify the legitimacy and reliability of any claims. Responsibility Because the distribution of UGC is often decentralized, two core issues of content responsibility arise. Firstly, are certain stakeholders responsible for acting on information, and does this depend on who the information is submitted to? (e.g. with citizens submitting localized environmental quality violations, are governments obliged to respond?). Secondly, are participants who disseminate false, confidential, or harmful information liable for wrongdoings or unintended consequences that happen as a result (e.g. classified content submitted to Wikileaks or others’ private content posted by someone else online). There is little consensus on this issue. Accessibility An equitable share of the benefits generated by UGC is dependent on both developing infrastructure and reducing barriers to access across groups. Worldwide, the mobile market is growing at an astonishing rate, showing significant penetration into developing countries benefiting both firms and consumers.  That said, UGC also has the potential to create efficiencies, reduce program costs, and improve levels of government service, as is evidenced by e-Government programs across the globe.  In the context of business, penetration rates of UGC tools are relatively low.  Most businesses acknowledge that 1% of customers are power users, 9% are moderate users, and 90% are passive in terms of UGC.  This means that a minute fraction of the world’s population represents consumers worldwide.  Similar equity  issues exist across all UGC stakeholders.  Governments must identify the high leverage areas surrounding UGC and use them to develop policies that ensure accessibility.  Accessibility across groups will facilitate equity. Globalization and National Interests Through its low cost and ease of dissemination, UGC has the potential to improve consensus building between previously isolated groupsin the US and worldwide. In the peacebuilding realm, these tools can facilitate communication and increase understanding between ethnic groups with long histories of misunderstanding and provocation. UGC can also be used to identify emerging conflicts and human rights violations in fragile regions; however, while this could allow one nation to take actions to stop abuses in foreign states, it also raises concerns for national sovereignty - a concern which arises from egregious abuses of human rights and the moral impetus of  intervention from other states and global citizens.  Having an open online source of UGC could allow for other parties to take advantage of the tool in potentially malicious ways. For example, terrorism databases involving UGC could be used to make predictions about future terrorist attacks, but intentional false reports could be added to target political dissidents or negatively impact a nation’s economy by reducing tourism and foreign direct investment through perceived instability.

Recommendations to stakeholders

Because of the rapidly evolving pace of technologies utilizing UGC, we recommend the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:
  1. Request the National Academies convene an expert committee of various stakeholders to examine:
    1. best practices for data curation and verification;
    2. national security risks of open source UGC;
    3. applications of UGC for peacebuilding efforts and human rights violations;
    4. ability of current infrastructure to integrate UGC in both the private and public sector;
    5. the utility of an organized crisis mapping system for disaster relief and;
    6. existing laws and policies that address UGC.
  2. Coordinate existing offices that deal with Incoming Technologies. Increase their visibility and articulate a coherent interface to and from these nascent technologies, facilitating their development, and creating an open standards and policy guidelines for stakeholders.
  3. Increase transparency in existing privacy policies to protect citizens’ concerns with UGC.
This policy brief was prepared as an individual exercise in professional writing under the National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. The findings and conclusions are solely attributed to the authors and not necessarily endorsed or adopted by the National Academies.
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