Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A list of ten helpful responses to internet censorship

A common experience on the internet is forum censorship. In the past, people had to rely on admins in privately run BBS. Admin abuse was a common problem on BBS, but there were also admins which were so committed to the concept of free expression that they let practically anything in.

Today, most forums are moderated. We've come a long way from the days in which a BBS Admin would fight to preserve the free flow of information. Now almost every board is sanitized by spineless mods. Increasingly most forums, are merely playgrounds for bullies acting under the mod banner.

The mods take a very heavy handed approach to filtering information and there is often little a forum user can do to correct a mistake by a moderator.

As a general rule, you want to find forums that have a general set of guidelines and not too many subject areas. The fragmentation of forums makes communicating information to different subgroups difficult. This is done intentionally to sandbag information and prevent information from becoming effective. An excellent example of sandbagging is the Steam users forum where each game gets its own forum making it almost impossible for gamers to talk about common problems with each other.

Forums that have subforums with their own rules get problematic because it is hard to keep up with all the rules from one forum to another. This again is designed to provide censors with the upper hand as it will be easy to trip people up on hidden rules. In addition to that, the more subforums there are, the more likely a person is to be accused of posting in the wrong forum and having their thread removed.

What follows are the typical reasons for censorship and possible responses.

Basis 1: Your post is against the rules.

Your post is against the rules. There are rules against what you are doing.

Response 1: Rules are often a pretext for censorship. Hide behind the rules mantra if you want, but it appears your interpretation of the rules is simply that the rules were designed to eliminate all thoughtful and critical discussions.

Basis 2: Your post is spam.

Response 2: A lot of things get called spam which are not spam to achieve a form of censorship. According to Wikipedia, “Anti-spam policies may also be a form of disguised censorship, a way to ban access or reference to questioning alternative forums or blogs by an institution. This form of occult censorship is mainly used by private companies when they can not muzzle criticism by legal ways.” The rule against spam is a facially neutral rule which is being abused. My post is relevent and provides supporting material that enhances the discussion at hand.

Basis 3: We do not allow the posting of links.

Response 3: The denial of the ability to link to relevant material is a form of censorship. According to the Wikipedia entry on internet censorship, this is known as "Blocking the intermediate tools and applications of the Internet that can be used to assist users in accessing and sharing sensitive material."

Basis 4: It was a close call, but we erred on the side of caution and decided that the post should be removed.

Response 4: This is the Twoface policy: Heads: Freedom of Expression. Tails: Censorship. I prefer forums that don't leave freedom of information to chance. Funny thing is, it always seems to come up tails because of erring on the side of caution. Try to err on the side of freedom.

Basis 5: You should have included an explanation for the link in your post,so the moderator can have more information before making a decision.

Response 5: All the mods had to do was click the link and determine there was no reason to remove it because the link was both relevant and included supporting material including supporting embedded video. The burden of censorship should lie with the mods, not with the poster to establish why the post is legitimate.

Basis 6: The thread is closed because of what other people say.

Response 6: Allowing trolls to sidetrack a debate or closing a thread because of what others say allows people to exercise a form of heckler's veto. The appropriate course of action would be to remove the post by the offending troll, not close the entire thread.

Basis 7: The topic is not allowed because we are afraid of what other people might say.

Response 7: The hypothetical response of the audience is not a legitimate basis for censorship.

Basis 8: We are not engaged in censorship.

Response 8: I think the mods should familiarize themselves with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and understand that internet communication is now considered a human right.

Basis 9: We do not allow opinions only facts.

Response 9: This is viewpoint discrimination. What you call opinion, could easily be called viewpoint and the [companies/subject/forum] have a viewpoint as well. You just don't acknowledge it.

Basis 10: If you don't like it, find some other place to post.

Response 10: Forums across the internet act the same way. It will be censored no matter where I try to post it. Furthermore, I am not interested in participating in forums that censor my views, because I know that it will censor other peoples views as well. This means the forum itself is fake and will not provide me with access to critical and sensitive information.

Response 10: Bonus Material

The world-wide web was designed to try to promote and foster communications. It began as a government project and it still remains under US control. It is not clear to me why privitization would allow for the waiving of rights, as the rights being waived do not belong to the government. That is to say, the government cannot waive my rights unilaterally, through privitization. If they could, any rights would be entirely illusory. I should add that I focus primarily on Article 19, rather than the first ammendment, which is more global in character, because frankly the world wide web is more global in its effect and operations.

In Conclusion

The pretexts for censoring information are growing, so you might has well have some responses ready to go when you encounter censorship by the mods. Although many companies operate forums, few want truly critical discussions to occur. At the same time, co-opted forms of media are often given a pass, while independent voices are quashed. If I post a link to my blog, which is not monetized, I will have a greater chance of having my link removed than if I post a link to a mainstream commercialized site such as Gamespot or IGN. Unfortunately, Gamespot and IGN promote industry embedded viewpoints. They can be critical of games, but not too critical. They can pan a game mercilessly, but at the end of the day, they will also kick the hype machine into action when it is time to bolster the sales of a decent title. After all, their livelihood still depends on the overall success of the games industry. Their practices are short-sighted and counterproductive, however, as the elimination of constructive criticism will only slow the process of necessary change.

Hopefully, having a quick set of responses will help educate others about the problem of internet censorship even if your post is ultimately closed, the thread is locked, and you get banned.

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