Monday, July 7, 2008

Rethinking Free Speech Online [IFTF]

Institute for the Future, July 7, 2008 [Link]

We often think, talk, and write about social networking and public spaces online. But it's easy to forget an important part of the modern-day Internet: private companies rule the Web.

We often think, talk, and write about social networking and public spaces online. But it's easy to forget an important part of the modern-day Internet: private companies rule the Web. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, MySpace are private companies with payrolls, investors, and ultimate ownership over the spaces we use to share and collect information. Are they limiting free speech? Or are we foolish to think of our speech as something that should be "free" in spaces that depend on subscriptions or advertising to stay alive?

Every community and service has its own terms of service, its own set of community guidelines. And for as much as people feel they are being wrongly censored and that their First Amendment rights are violated, community guidelines online are really the equivalent of "No shirt, no shoes, no service": if you don't like these rules, find another place to post.

Photo by jkoshi

For example, at a gathering at a local San Francisco bar a few months ago, I met a Flickr employee whose role is, in part, to field complaints about inappropriate behavior on Flickr. He follows Flickr's set of guidelines in determining what should be made private and what is appropriate for the Flickr public. When it comes to nudity, he must adhere to the "south of the border" rule, where any below-the-belt nudity is stricken from public access. Whether it is art or pornography doesn't matter—Flickr has decided to avoid that debate altogether and draw its own line.

On a much smaller scale, privately hosted community forums frequently develop strict rules of conduct for members and appoint moderators to delete incendiary posts and, in extreme cases, ban frequent offenders from the forum altogether. Even blogs have moderators who remove incendiary comments that they deem irrelevant to the dialog. Banned users frequently complain about their rights to free speech, but in the end, the site's rules reign.

The AP's Anick Jesdanun considers this matter in his July 3rd article, "'Public' online spaces don't carry speech, rights":
While mindful of free speech and other rights, Yahoo and other companies say they must craft and enforce guidelines that go beyond legal requirements to protect their brands and foster safe, enjoyable communities — ones where minors may be roaming.

Guidelines help "engender a positive community experience," one to which users will want to return, said Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president for policy.


Heather Champ, community director for Flickr, said the company crafts policies based on feedback from users and trains employees to weigh disputes fairly and consistently, though mistakes can happen.

"We're humans," she said. "We're pretty transparent when we make mistakes. We have a record of being good about stepping up and fessing up."

But that underscores another consequence of having online commons controlled by private corporations. Rules aren't always clear, enforcement is inconsistent, and users can find content removed or accounts terminated without a hearing. Appeals are solely at the service provider's discretion.

The implications become severe when you consider the accusations against Yahoo of working with the Chinese government to identify dissidents using the Internet to speak out against the government. That sort of activity may mar the company's image, but that doesn't undo the fact that users thought they were speaking anonymously in a worldwide forum, beyond the the scrutiny of the Chinese government. These companies know what you are doing online, and the recent Viacom v. YouTube ruling brings into question not only matters of free speech, but also privacy.

Jesdanun's article is an interesting read, and weighs the pros and cons of government intervention in assuring free speech rights online. But until those issues are worked out, as bottom-up as many of these services seem, there is always a ceiling: the company's bottom line.

— Jess Hemerly, July 2007

No comments: