by Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC Director of Programs
What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of titles sold on our site.
—From Amazon.com Guidelines regarding prohibited content
The Internet has given everyone with access to a computer the opportunity to voice his or her thoughts to a potential audience of millions. Even the fringiest figure can have a fan club and the most radical of ideas can find a platform – especially in the United States, where the First Amendment prohibits government from interfering with Internet freedom of expression. Right? Not quite.
Our networked commons are owned by private corporations that have no obligations under the First Amendment to uphold free speech rights, but are increasingly in the position to control information. And they do – sometimes deliberately, sometimes simply because of errors in their increasingly automated systems.
Arbiters of Morality
Facebook has gained notoriety among artists for removing images of nudes and for offering no means to challenge such decisions. Even though the company’s policies allow “the posting of drawings, paintings and sculptures of nudes,” earlier this year Facebook removed nude drawings from the page of the New York Academy of Art. While these were restored after the scandal hit the media, numerous other works remain banned in spite of attempts to inform Facebook of their artistic value.
While protests against Facebook censorship have received relatively wide coverage, a much quieter shift is underway within the world’s largest bookstore and budding publisher, Amazon. It began in late 2010, in response to pressures to remove a book criticized for being sympathetic to pedophilia. Initially, the company responded: “Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.” After 3,000 comments, customer outrage, and threats of boycotts, however, the book was removed.
Since then, Amazon has taken to removing books, not because they are sexually explicit (Amazon does not sell hardcore porn) but because some customers find the subject matter offensive, e.g., books about incest and rape, in addition to pedophilia. Even scholarly publications about pedophilia have been removed.
As a result of such pressures, Amazon has begun to err on the side of caution: for instance, the documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, which explores a chapter in early days of the Internet porn industry, was removed from the Amazon store early this year with no explanation. In spite of its provocative title and challenging subject-matter, the film is an informative documentary about a popular BDSM website, not a porn film.1]
Perhaps, however, the removal was just a result of the fact that the ever-growing Internet giants simply do not have the workforce to actually look at the content of material and, hence, judge it by its title, or even, in the case of some companies, leave the decision to non-humans.
Enter the Bots
In June Facebook blocked any mention of a UK strike organizers’ website, www.j30strike.org, because it had been “flagged as abusive or spam.” It later appeared this had been an error – a disturbing one. With only three human employees per million users, Facebook has to leave content judgment to its “bots”, thus giving censorship power to those who claim a post is abusive. As blogger and NCAC board member Chris Peterson commented, “If Facebook structures its technological architecture such that activist websites can be removed by a few folks reporting them as abusive, then it has the same abhorrent, centralized, censoring effect.”
In a similar bot-related incident, this fall Yahoo started blocking emails containing any mention of OccupyWallSt.org. Yahoo’s bots were interpreting the messages as spam. Automated management here, as with Facebook, led to what a Slate article called the “unelected, inefficient, and sometimes-petty tyranny” of “small dictators and big bots.” 2]
Big brother-like terms of service and the obligation for Internet giants to cut costs and produce ever-higher profit margins threaten to turn the networked commons into an environment where small group pressure joins automated enforcement to the effect of stifling any controversial ideas. For better or worse, however, there is the free market: companies that become known as censors may not fare so well in the long term. After all, we still care more about freedom than about easy shopping and bland socializing. Right?
(Image: Facebook has yet to recognize photography as an art form, hence photographs of nudes are off-limits. Creatively responding to the situation, a Swedish museum voluntarily censored images on its page by partially covering works from its recent Mapplethorpe exhibition with a “Facebook-friendly square.”)
1 Months later, after the intervention of NCAC and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the film was restored to the Amazon store.
2 Zeynep Tufekci, “Small Dictators, Big Bots: Yahoo didn’t mean to censor emails about Wall Street protests. The truth is much more insidious,” Slate.com, Sept. 22, 2011.