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Corporate Censorship (2019-04-09)

A couple of pieces of duct tape. A couple of pieces of duct tape.
A couple of pieces of duct tape, december 2018

I have written at least two thoughtpieces already dealing with questions of censorship and free speech. In part this was so that I could sort out what the american invocations of "free speech" and inveighing against "censorship" meant in their context. Canadians make sloppy conflations between arguments set out by americans based on the american constitution and body of laws and the canadian constitution and body of laws, so this is an important step to take. There is a lot of overlap between the two in terms of principle and even in law. For better or worse, the differences do matter. Setting that aside, for my part, I agree with many people in the world generally that government suppression of speech, especially speech critical of the government or other powerful political and social players is not ethical or justifiable. Today we face the additional problem of private entities so powerful that they too can suppress speech, especially speech that is critical of them or their cherished ideas. This is also wrong. For some reason it seems to be taking quite awhile even in the united states, home of that cherished amendment about free speech, for that country to take in hand the problem of censorship by businesses deliberately or in effect. It's a hard problem, to be sure, especially right now when capitalist fundamentalism remains potent as toxic waste even as its sway over more and more people fails. (That's not a contradiction – nonsense can still poison discussion because everybody has to clear the nonsense before they can have a sensible conversation.)

My favourite example to illustrate this is of a bookstore which is certainly not practising censorship or suppression by refusing to stock certain books or host certain speakers. As pundits all over the web and off of it have pointed out already, this is accurate for one bookstore among many pursuing different audiences and customers. It does not work in the event that the bookstore in question is effectively the only one, and therefore the only source of books or speaking events. Then the situation is not like an idealized small business at all but like a monopoly that prevents access to books and authors outside of its catalogue. The prevention merely has to be "make it difficult," no outright bans or other types of sinister funny business required except not listing other authors and books, or making off-list pricing higher, or off-list books slower to get, or demanding an absurd minimum number of orders.

In the web-based world, concern about the corporate control of information has focussed on so-called social media lately, especially because the idea that twitter or facebook somehow control thought around the world is quite good for their stock evaluations and advertisement pricing. I am skeptical about these two platforms when they are depicted as such potent influencers, although that does not prevent me from agreeing that their power to manipulate discourse and information sharing is too high all the same and should be ended. Just because I don't think people on social media are completely controlled by it doesn't mean that I think advertising companies calling themselves social media shouldn't be curbed for other important reasons like stopping their mass surveillance. But I do think that too many people have their eyes off another important ball, this one in the arena of blog-hosting and web publishing outside of social media.

Most of us have heard of wordpress, the free blogging software, and many of have read blogs hosted on wordpress.com either for free or under paid plans with a company called automattic. At this point, wordpress.com is one of the largest, if not the largest blog hosting company on the web. Like twitter or facebook, it has lengthy terms of service that are forever being manipulated in an effort to manage the potential impact of what bloggers post on its legal liabilities. As a private company, automattic has brought with its growth an atitude that it doesn't have to be neutral about what it hosts, and reserves the right to shut down blogs whenever it pleases on various causes it writes into its terms of service from time to time. Okay. Except, it is no longer one among many platforms all jostling together to host blogs, favouring particular general types of material depending on their politics. It is a behemoth, and it makes it easy to get started blogging on it, and hard to get out if it becomes uncongenial for any reason, especially if you want to take your blog elsewhere instead of just abandoning it. That's a problem.

UPDATE 2018-12-14 - Some blogs at risk of being censored on automattic's wordpress server have already moved, including 4thwavenow, where the site owners have also restored the censored posts to their original state, as they committed to do at the first opportunity. At one time I would have recommended the Internet Archive as a good fallback in the event of a website being removed in today's new era of massive corporate censorship. However, it is now clear that the Internet Archive is also engaged in retrospective censorship, so it is critical to make sure to save copies of key articles and do what you can to help potentially affected bloggers and commenters to preserve and keep their works available. And no, I don't say this to mean only the people I agree with. To my mind, the only reason to take down and silence particular speech is when that speech specifically encourages and reinforces violence or directly requires violence in its making. Alas, these criteria do not instantly solve the genuine issues around speech that is controversial at minimum and outright dangerous at worst and how best to handle them, because those issues are not easy to manage effectively and honourably when our complicity with oppressive structures is encouraged in so many ways. However, I think it is important to state criteria clearly, and when the step of removing or silencing speech is taken, that must be done publicly and in a manner that includes a statement that that is what is being done and why. That is the only way to ensure that the absolutely necessary discussion of difficult cases happens, and the only way to ensure that we get better at doing the right thing, not finding excuses to pretend there is a right way to do a wrong thing.

An even bigger one is the growing evidence that automattic's team has taken to retrospectively deep sixing bogs after new terms of service changes, and even shutting down blogs and then quickly whipping up a terms of service change after the fact to justify it. The examples I am most familiar with are from the ongoing purge of lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs from the platform. On top of that, in at least one case that readers can check for themselves at the blog 4thwavenow, staff have silently censored a blog entry by hand. Maybe they think they are justifying this by telling themselves that it isn't about potential liability, because automattic is an american company and they have third party immunity. No, it is about maybe, fear of pressure on their servers from denial of service attacks by people incensed by controversial speech on those blogs. Or maybe they've decided they should take an editorial role, and their editorial position deems lesbian, feminist, and gender critical blogs completely unacceptable. All of which might be no more than dubious and cowardly, if wordpress.com were a mere player among players.

Blogging and web site creation in general are forms of publishing. Bloggers generally work with the understanding that they are the editors and proprietors of their blogs, not the company whose server hosts them. It seems that automattic in particular is fine with this notion as long as the blogger's effective editorial policy doesn't clash with theirs or otherwise catch the attention of those with the technical access to shut down blogs at will. There are alternatives to wordpress.com, of course. One is plain website hosting for modest monthly fees, or else an alternative "free" platform such as blogger (watch out, its actually google), or tumblr (opinions vary). The big issue seems to be that so many bloggers who did not start out running web businesses are so reluctant to pay any money to put their blogs on the web. If they still receive some modest web space and blog hosting services with their internet subscription, they may not know about it. This is a grave situation.

One thing that would help considerably is the web equivalent of samizdat. According to my OED, samizdat is "the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially in the former soviet union." Of course, in the case of the web we need a modified version of this definition, in fact one closer to its literal meaning in russian, which is "self-publishing house." We need a way to self-publish on the web even when the state or a corporation tries to ban what we have to say. Believe it or not, we are actually very close to having this pulled together already. Volunteer-founded projects like Archive of Our Own is a key example. For the many people who bemoan that having and running a server is hard, allow me to direct you to an alternative approach in the form of the Freedom Box and its cousin, the Library Box. Both are software packages to set up modestly priced portable file distribution servers that run on low power and are small enough to throw in a backpack or even a jacket pocket. Based on open source software and hardware, you can get full instructions and downloads so that you could set up the server software on a repurposed older, low powered machine. Public and university libraries are already experimenting with these, so it may well be you can add your blog to one of those little servers. Among the most powerful and dangerous weapons that companies like automattic or twitter or facebook have, is the fact that at least a portion of us have been persuaded that we can't do without them to publish on-line, get traffic to our web sites, and so on. If we let them convince us of this when it isn't true, they will take steps to make it true if they can. We have every reason to oppose them. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23