Whilst many have blasted Google’s decision to cooperate with Chinese authorities by censoring its offering to Chinese visitors to its pages, others are now calling for Google to act the part of censor on its home turf in the Evil Empire. Surprisingly — alarmingly, in fact — Google has given in to these demands. At stake is a blog written by a number of boy-lovers. For those of you who don’t know, a boy-lover is an adult who is sexually attracted to boys.
One may argue that it is a good thing for people who think that pedophilia is disgusting to have a compliant corporate citizen on their side, ready to quash speech that they find offensive and morally reprehensible, a serious question emerges: If the primary companies that offer Internet services begin to act the part of the censor by denying individuals with views considered anathema by much of the public, does this not amount to a de facto denial of those individuals’ First Amendment right to free speech? This leads to another, even more disturbing question: do the people who advocate this form of corporate censorship really wish to undermine the Bill of Rights by inviting for-profit corporations with a commitment only to their shareholders to be the guardians of ‘acceptable speech’?
In an age where large corporations already control such a vast amount of what is seen, read and heard in the world, I am quite frankly alarmed at the prospect that they are being invited to take an even larger role in controlling access to information and I think that everybody else who values freedom ought to be alarmed as well. To many, it may now seem like a good idea to prevent pedophiles from expressing their opinions, but what about tomorrow when some other group falls from grace and comes under persecution from mainstream society? And what if you happen to be a member of that group? How will you respond when it is your religion or ethnicity or body type or language or political views that are deemed unworthy of the first amendment by society and then by corporations with no commitment to freedom of speech? Will you then be so eager to jump on the bandwagon of corporate censorship? Probably not. More likely, you will be reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller, a protestant clergyman in Nazi Germany.
They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Unfortunately, corporate censorship is not limited to Google or to the suspension of blogs. Other forms of this censorship that are even more insidious are the refusal of ISPs to host sites they find objectionable (even if there is nothing illegal on them) and registrars who suspend the domain registration of sites they find objectionable. I have personal experience with the latter, having had my domain suspended by GoDaddy for an alleged violation of its acceptable use policy. Fortunately, I managed to recover the domain after I filed a complaint about the suspension with ICANN. During this process, I discovered that whilst GoDaddy found my website to be offensive and in violation of its acceptable use policy, it apparently does not feel the same about several neo-nazi and white supremacist websites, still registered with it to this day.
I can accept the fact that a company has a right to offer or deny service to whomever it pleases, I also believe that the First Amendment is not served if things progress to the point where no company is willing to provide service to people holding particular points of view. Yet this is precisely the state of affairs the crusaders against pedophile blogs would like to see. At which point, then, do we allow companies to hide behind acceptable use policies to the point of excluding speech considered to be offensive?
I think that it is time to begin considering universal service provisions for certain Internet services to ensure that everybody has a place they can go to receive service, irrespective of their political or social views. Just as universal service requirements have protected individuals considered undesirable by public utilities and insurers, similar protections need to be instituted to ensure that all individuals have equal access to the informational resources that allow them to express their freedom of speech. Otherwise, we may well end up with a Bill of Rights rendered useless by corporate self-interest, hijacked by an increasingly intolerant ‘mainstream’.