Private Censorship on the Net

Private Censorship on the Net

Broadcasting a Pearl Jam concert over the web (I'm told the kids call it “webcasting”), AT&T censored out a lyric critical of President Bush. After an outcry by fans and criticism from the band, AT&T issued a public apology. The company took full responsibility and announced that censorship of political speech is “totally against [their] policy.” Internet activists, however, see the episode as a parable about the need for Net Neutrality – ensuring through governmental oversight that ISPs can't discriminate between packets. While that's an interesting take on what happened, it's not quite on point: this was content discrimination, not price discrimination.

But it does highight one problem with the increasing importance of the internet as a public communicative space. There are very strict limits on the government's ability to regulate or restrict speech based on content. There are significantly fewer restraints on what private actors can do. An internet that you can only access by purchasing services from one of a handful of ISPs is an internet that can potentially be re-shaped by their censorship practices. China knows that already. So far public pressure is keeping providers from content filtering – but Google has announced its intention to filter YouTube videos for copyright infringement. In an era of increasing media consolidation, the market might not be able to handle this one. Or am I just being paranoid?


Thumbnail photo courtesy of deep schismic.



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Google Censors conservative blogs/news sites, removing them from the search results. Conveniently coincides with their financial partnership with . A very liberal political advocacy website, incase you didn't know.

They also capitulated with the Chinese Govt to remove Dissidence websites.

Google has shown us what censorship is. Liberals are good at censoring too, it seems the message to us is.



I agree, if I own a server, you dam well bet that I will have control over what goes on on the site. The website /b/ is not stoping you from posting porn, you can still post it, just not on thier site. Just like my truck and smoking, I am not saying that smelly smokers cant smoke, just not in my truck. Except its not a law, and my dad wont listen to me...oh well time to goto the cleaners..

I do not though, want an ISP choosing what i can and cannot view, as long as its legal. If my ISP started doing that I would be screwed, because they are the only broadband in town, except for like Satellite. If i want to watch anti-Bush, or anti-Clinton videos, that should be up to me. I will no tolerate an ISP "mothering" me. Can anyone say capitolism....

By the way, keep up the good work Erin. Sometimes I wonder if we are in America anymore, having to battle for our freedom, from our own people. Just my opinion. If i was a member of Digg, I would digg this post.



Just because you can type "capitolism", doesn't mean it's a word.



A more conventional, if less interesting problem on the horizon, is what happens if content runs counter to what an ISP has investments in. For example, should an ISP censor videos that might promote Coke when they have investments in Pepsi? It's not an issue yet, but as money and investment and product placement becomes firmly rooted on the internet, you can bet it will be.

But smaller groups already promote private censorship and most of us just accept it as the cost of doing business. I can fully expect if I posted an ad for my (this does not really exist) porn page, that MaximumPC would delete it. If I try to upload a sex scene to YouTube, it's deleted. If I write fanfiction of Snape finding innovative ways to instruct Harry Potter, you can bet it will be deleted. People can cry censorship, but the truth is, the internet is already heavily censored on virtually every webpage out there. Heck, even on /b/ there are some pictures that will get you booted from their unique services.

Censorship shouldn't surprise people. The only reason anyone took notice of this at all is because it gives the appearance that the Evil Bush Empire is somehow pulling the strings--and that is what people fear. Even then, there are enough anti-Bush websites, blogs, and promotional material on the internet to keep an entire legion of politically-motivated users busy. Two minutes from a concert? Eh, who cares, really?



I disagree. When you visit a website, that website is paying for the hosting and operation. If you posted a link to a pron site here, the link would be stored on a server MPC was paying for, or owned, giving them a legal right to delete it.

This is not about websites controlling their content, but about ISP's filtering what their users can see. That is unethical because you payed the ISP for access to the internet, so you can expect to be able to view whatever you want.



The biggest defense against this is common carrier status. As soon as an ISP starts filtering content, it loses the protection from lawsuits it otherwise would have had.

For example, if you download warez, instead of a company going after you personally, they could sue the carrier, who has much deeper pockets.

This liability is the biggest reason companies are reluctant to engage in censorship.

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