Internet Services Trying to Decide How and When to Censor User Content - The UpStream

Internet Services Trying to Decide How and When to Censor User Content

posted Saturday Jul 14, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Internet Services Trying to Decide How and When to Censor User Content

Over the past year, one of the big topics on the internet has been about internet censorship. Some people believe that the internet should be a place for the free and open exchange of ideas. Others believe that it is the responsibility of platforms to censor the content that users publish, based on their own version of reality. A surprising percentage of people believe both of these things at once.


Take, for example, Facebook: the platform was intimately involved in trying to prevent the FCC from removing the guidelines known colloquially as "net neutrality." These guidelines restricted companies like Comcast from blocking content on the internet based on the company's interests. For example, if Comcast felt a threat to their corporate culture or corporate interests from HuffPo, which is owned by Verizon, they could block that content.

On the other hand, the company has been very interested in doing the same thing on their own platform. The company has openly suspended pages from conservatives, even closing personal accounts of people who share content that Facebook themselves deems to be "fake news." Overall, however, the company has tried to remain a little farther from the front lines on the topic, often times removing individual posts, but not closing accounts entirely. Their users would prefer that they do more.

This week, the company was thrust into the spotlight over a popular Facebook page, which represents the online publication InfoWars. For those who are unfamiliar, InfoWars is an enigma: their frontman, Alex Jones, is often times a nutjob, while the rest of the site is filled with legitimate journalism. Most people don't remember anything about InfoWars other than gay frogs, however. Facebook has been reluctant to take action against the site, which is annoying users who disagree with the content on the site. Facebook responded, saying,

We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis - but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.

It's good that Facebook has not gone completely 1984 on us, though it does seem to be headed in that direction.


Reddit has taken an equally contradictory stance on censoring content on their site. CEO Steve Huffman created a scenario this week in which the only question we can ask is, "What does he actually believe?" Responding to the question, "Why do you admins not just ban hate speech?" Huffman, better known on the platform as spez, said,

spez: Our violent speech policy is effectively that.

whatll: I'd argue that hate speech should be banned with its own rule, separate from the violence policy. But thank you for replying.

spez: Hate speech is difficult to define. There's a reason why it's not really done. Additionally, we are not the thought police. It's not the role of a private company to decide what people can and cannot say.

whatll: But it *is* the role of a private company to decide what people can and cannot say *on {its} own platform*.

spez: I know what you're asking, but it's a nearly impossible precedent to uphold. It's impossible to enforce consistently.

The position that he has taken is that it is a slippery slope. Once you start the process of censoring content, the site becomes more and more responsible for censoring content on the site. That is a reasonable position - he doesn't want to police the ideas of people on the site. That brings us back to the open and free exchange of ideas concept, something that many people believe. However, his actions following the conversation were not quite consistent.

Following the conversation, whatll's account was suspended. So, I guess they don't want to be the thought police, assuming your thoughts agree with the policies of Reddit? While the company has confirmed that the conversation did take place, they only report that the suspension was "for harassment" and nothing more. It's possible that the user was harassing someone somewhere else, though it seems like if someone was going to get upset, it would be over the topic with spez.

It is unlikely that the topic of online censorship will be going anywhere, anytime soon. In fact, it is likely that more companies will be bullied into censoring content the way that YouTube has been. On YouTube, there are tags you cannot use if you want to be monetized. There are certain legal topics you cannot discuss if you want to be monetized. This is not nearly the end, more like the beginning.


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