Nick Jesdanun / AP | July 6, 2008

NEW YORK – Rant all you want in a public park. A police officer generally won’t eject you for your remarks alone, however unpopular or provocative.

Say it on the Internet, and you’ll find that free speech and other constitutional rights are anything but guaranteed.

Companies in charge of seemingly public spaces online wipe out content that’s controversial but otherwise legal. Service providers write their own rules for users worldwide and set foreign policy when they cooperate with regimes like China. They serve as prosecutor, judge and jury in handling disputes behind closed doors.

The governmental role that companies play online is taking on greater importance as their services — from online hangouts to virtual repositories of photos and video — become more central to public discourse around the world. It’s a fallout of the Internet’s market-driven growth, but possible remedies, including government regulation, can be worse than the symptoms.

Dutch photographer Maarten Dors met the limits of free speech at Yahoo Inc.’s photo-sharing service, Flickr, when he posted an image of an early-adolescent boy with disheveled hair and a ragged T-shirt, staring blankly with a lit cigarette in his mouth.

Without prior notice, Yahoo deleted the photo on grounds it violated an unwritten ban on depicting children smoking. Dors eventually convinced a Yahoo manager that — far from promoting smoking — the photo had value as a statement on poverty and street life in Romania. Yet another employee deleted it again a few months later.

“I never thought of it as a photo of a smoking kid,” Dors said. “It was just of a kid in Romania and how his life is. You can never make a serious documentary if you always have to think about what Flickr will delete.”

There may be legitimate reasons to take action, such as to stop spam, security threats, copyright infringement and child pornography, but many cases aren’t clear-cut, and balancing competing needs can get thorny.

“We often get caught in the middle between a rock and a hard place,” said Christine Jones, general counsel with service provider GoDaddy.com Inc. “We’re obviously sensitive to the freedoms we have, particularly in this country, to speak our mind, (yet) we want to be good corporate citizens and make the Internet a better and safer place.”

In Dors’ case, the law is fully with Yahoo. Its terms of service, similar to those of other service providers, gives Yahoo “sole discretion to pre-screen, refuse or remove any content.” Service providers aren’t required to police content, but they aren’t prohibited from doing so.

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.

Dors ultimately got his photo restored a second time, and Yahoo has apologized, acknowledging its community managers went too far.

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.

Users get caught in the crossfire as hundreds of individual service representatives apply their own interpretations of corporate policies, sometimes imposing personal agendas or misreading guidelines.

To wit: Verizon Wireless barred an abortion-rights group from obtaining a “short code” for conducting text-messaging campaigns, while LiveJournal suspended legitimate blogs on fiction and crime victims in a crackdown on pedophilia. Two lines criticizing President Bush disappeared from AT&T Inc.’s webcast of a Pearl Jam concert. All three decisions were reversed only after senior executives intervened amid complaints.

Inconsistencies and mysteries behind decisions lead to perceptions that content is being stricken merely for being unpopular.

“As we move more of our communications into social networks, how are we limiting ourselves if we can’t see alternative points of view, if we can’t see the things that offend us?” asked Fred Stutzman, a University of North Carolina researcher who tracks online communities.

First Amendment protections generally do not extend to private property in the physical world, allowing a shopping mall to legally kick out a customer wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a smoking child.

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