Should Amazon Censor? Should Apple? Facebook? Microsoft?

Thursday Dec 2nd 2010 by Mike Elgan
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Amazon’s refusal to host Wikileaks raises larger questions of who controls online content.

Where should Internet and consumer technology companies draw the line when it comes to censoring or banning content?

The issue was thrust into the foreground this week when Wikileaks moved to Amazon's Elastic Web Compute (EC2) service to protect itself from a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. After widespread criticism, including from U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, Amazon announced that it would refuse to host Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks organization exists to make secret, confidential or sensitive information public. It's in the news this week after beginning the process of exposing more than a quarter of a million US State Department cables.

Opinion on Wikileaks is all over the map; some are calling for the arrest of its founder and others say the organization is good for democracy.

The nature of the content exposed by Wikileaks is not at all universally deplored. It’s a point of controversy, which Amazon has now taken a side on. Is that what a public hosting company should do?

On what basis would Amazon refused to host Wikileaks? Regardless of where you stand on Wikileaks itself, is there some objective standard by which a theoretically neutral hosting company like Amazon can make decisions about what to host and what not to host?

As far as I can tell, hosting Wikileaks isn't illegal. The government didn't force Amazon to turn them away; it only requested it.

Should companies ban or censor content whenever someone in the government requests it? Should they have committees to determine for themselves what threatens national security or public safety -- or even decency?

Although the idea of a private company censoring content appears controversial, it really isn't. There is an overwhelming consensus in the public sphere that all content companies should censor. For example, you almost never hear support for the idea that companies should allow child pornography. Even 4chan doesn't support that.

Disagreement exists over where the line is, not over whether or not there should be a line.

So if we expect companies to censor content, on what basis should they do it? Safety? National security? Morality? Protect children but not adults?

Consider other high-profile questions.

Should ISPs Host Terrorist Recruiting Web Sites?

Terrorism experts say that web sites now serve as the top source for recruits and "education" of violent terrorist extremists. The majority of these sites are hosted in the United States by American companies.

One recent example in the news: A Canadian extremist who left Canada and is hiding somewhere abroad from Canadian and international authorities broadcasts calls for violence and even genocide on a Web site called 1st-amendment.net based in the United States.

Should this be shut down? It's easy to say "yes," but on what basis? Public safety? Hate speech? If so, there's widespread disagreement over what constitutes both.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, might consider alcoholic beverage ads a far greater threat to public safety than terrorism. Statistically, they've got a point. And by what yardstick can a company determine "hate speech"?

Should Apple Censor iPhone Apps?

Apple is often criticized for banning iOS apps that serve up content. Apple censors based on a very wide variety of unpublished criteria, which may include sexuality, hate speech, support for competing platforms and even "taste." (Apple even recently banned a magazine app for Android enthusiasts.)

It's not at all clear how Apple determines what's OK and what isn't OK. But how should they determine it? Should they allow just about anything, even if that means what they would consider a degraded "experience" for users or advantage for competitors – even if a majority of users want them to do this?

Should Facebook Ban Breast-feeding Photos?

Facebook allows all kinds of photos that many would consider degrading to women, or even soft-core pornography, but has an iron-clan ban on pictures of mothers breastfeeding their babies.

These facts raise a question about whether Facebook's censorship policy is a direct reflection of Facebook’s skewed employee demographic, which heavily favors the young and male. For example, if Facebook's CEO was a 45-year-old mother instead of a 26-year-old frat-boy, the company might choose to ban degrading photos of women and allow pictures of infant breastfeeding.

Should companies establish censorship policies that reflect their own internal values, rather than the values of society at large? On whose values should these policies be determined?

Should Microsoft Ban Swastikas In Games?

In the blockbuster Xbox game, Call of Duty: Black Ops, players can add patches and images to various objects in the game. Microsoft specifically bans the use of the swastika, the official symbol of the Nazi Party in Germany. The symbol has become associated with the holocaust, and by extension, anti-Jewish, white supremacist hate speech.

How should Microsoft censor symbols? By committee? Policy? As Microsoft Director of Xbox LIVE Policy and Enforcement Stephen Toulouse wrote on his blog, the anti-swastika policy is "not political correctness, it's fundamental respect."

That's easy to say, but how is "respect" determined in less clear-cut cases? Should companies like Microsoft ban everything anyone complains about?

It’s clear that banning swastikas is good policy. What’s less clear is: Where is the line, and how is that line determined? Should Confederate flags be allowed? Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags? Pirate flags?

It’s also clear that censorship is something most people believe private companies should do. But right now there is no process or standards by which they can do it. As a result, each company is left on its own to make important censorship decisions with wildly varying degrees of arbitrariness.

Maybe we need censorship policies to be issued by something equivalent to standards bodies for technology. Maybe there should be industry-wide working groups that get together and haggle over what kind of content should be allowed, and what should not be.

That way, at least, we’d have some objective metric against which to judge the performance of companies on what they ban and what they allow.

Or maybe they should just allow everything.

Let's hear your thoughts in the comments area!

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