ImagingInfo.com |

Online Article Page

  

News
Rights Like Free Speech Don't Always Extend Online
AP



"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.

With online services becoming greater conduits than shopping malls for public communications, however, some advocacy groups believe the federal government needs to guarantee open access to speech. That, of course, could also invite meddling by the government, the way broadcasters now face indecency and other restrictions that are criticized as vague.

Others believe companies shouldn't police content at all, and if they do, they should at least make clearer the rules and the mechanisms for appeal.

"Vagueness does not inspire the confidence of people and leaves room for gaming the system by outside groups," said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran computer scientist and Internet activist. "When the rules are clear and the grievance procedures are clear, then people know what they are working with and they at least have a starting point in urging changes in those rules."

But Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project, questions whether the private sector is equipped to handle such matters at all. She said written rules mean little when service representatives applying them "tend to be tone-deaf. They don't see context."

At least when a court order or other governmental action is involved, "there's more of a guarantee of due process protections," said Robin Gross, executive director of the civil-liberties group IP Justice. With a private company, users' rights are limited to the service provider's contractual terms of services.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor who recently published a book on threats to the Internet's openness, said parties unhappy with sensitive materials online are increasingly aware they can simply pressure service providers and other intermediaries.

"Going after individuals can be difficult. They can be hard to find. They can be hard to sue," Zittrain said. "Intermediaries still have a calculus where if a particular Web site is causing a lot of trouble ... it may not be worth it to them."


   







PTN Dailes HERE