Saturday, 28 February 2015

Blogger's Ban Binned: Why That's A Good Thing

Ban this filth!
I first learned about the proposed Blogger ban on sexually explicit content on Techdirt, my go-to site for tech news. I was somewhat concerned for the future of On t'Internet at the time because I sometimes write about the culture wars. Controversial subjects tend to come up in my posts which could have led to my being obliged to put the e-quivalent of a brown paper bag over the site by setting it to private.

Well today I learned that the policy has been reversed from a pro-copyright reform group I follow on Twitter. I'm not going to link to that tweet or to the site that reported it because I don't approve of porn, and that site is the kind of thing that Blogger sought to censor. Right on the front page are explicit, no-holds-barred images of copulation; women in sexually submissive poses, and promises of more of the same. So why am I so pleased that the ban did not go ahead? Let's take a closer look at the implications, shall we?

Unacceptable content is in the eye of the beholder

Like it or not, what floats your boat may not float mine.

Needless to say, we had a bit of a barney and I had the last word:

Okay, up hands who thinks it should have been "Giggity!" as my husband suggested? The point is, Rick and I have diametrically opposed views on a lot of things because I'm basically conservative and he leans towards the left-liberal end of the political spectrum whether he likes to admit it or not. Well like a lot of people who hold strong views he attracts and associates with the kind of people who tend towards authoritarianism and believe me, an authoritarian is an authoritarian, whatever flag they're waving.

If I ban them, they might ban me

Slippery slope
Now imagine that assertions of religious faith or political convictions gross you out to the same degree that being confronted with the male gaze on sites that pretend that paying women to portray themselves as sexually uninhibited on a public space empowers them grosses me out. Go to a website that promotes atheism if you can't imagine that, they've done it for you. So some nanny-minded tinpot dictator acquires a bit of power to carry out some censorship at some point in the future, but instead of porn, he bans websites, blogs, and social media accounts that question the Establishment line on "All The Things" or promote a religious position.

Given what I've seen some of these people saying, we're not too far away from that at the moment. So which censor do you want to start blocking unacceptable content for the public good? The "Call-me-Daves" who don't want sleazy top-shelf material to show up in online searches "for the children" or the self-appointed Guardians of True Facts who often get their facts wrong? While I have said I neither like porn nor want to promote any site that features it to the point where I'll go out of my way to avoid linking to it, I would never try to ban it because, once the mechanism is in place to ban things "for the public good," a way will have to be found to enforce it.

Okay, how would you enforce it?

Per the argument I had with my colleague Billy RE: user-generated content, this would mean either attempting to exercise control over millions of users (good luck with that) or preventing people from uploading stuff altogether — or pending approval, which would kill off a good chunk of the internet because many online businesses depend on users posting comments, images, and videos. If they had to approve them first, they'd have to vet their users, then approve each upload. The number of users would plummet as they would not be happy to lose the ability to post whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. And illegal sites would spring up all over the place, so enjoy playing whack-a-mole trying to get them offline. Contrary to my colleague's assumptions, Twitter et al do not have the power to magically delete stuff on demand. In a world where report abuse is rife, they like to take their time about these things to make sure they don't pull down the innocent with the guilty. The alternative is to use an automated system based on keywords. That'd be the end of On t'Internet for sure; nobody is going to flatline their bottom line to hire enough censors to check every comment, tweet, or blog post on every site and I can't blame them for it.

Current adult content policies

Blogger will allow adult content for the moment but hides it behind interstitials that warn readers they're about to view an adult website, saying "It's for everyone's protection." I daresay this is a result of market pushback against attempted censorship imposed by some government entity or other. There is simply no way that a business will turn away easy money unless its owner is very principled or its under regulatory pressure. The fact that America's Republican Party currently controls both Congress and the Senate is probably the reason for this: I bet they leaned on Google and ordered them to ban adult content. Now this is mere conjecture but given their authoritarian bent and the way our own government has been working against internet freedom it wouldn't surprise me.

What they won't allow

Anything illegal, shocking, or potentially harmful will be banned if reported to them. They also reserve the right to restrict content to author's eyes only or even call the police for particularly nasty content. Fair enough, it's their platform and there's no need for the tinfoil hat, they're actually quite liberal in what they will permit. The trouble with their now-retracted policy is that it went above and beyond the requirements of protecting the easily offended (okay, you can add me to that number if you like. I can't stand porn) by limiting their exposure to potentially offensive material to working to prevent people from becoming offended in the first place by banning potentially offensive material altogether.

It's okay to compromise

The problems with pre-banning are manifold, from how to enforce it effectively to what to actually ban. The current solution is a compromise, but sadly you can't please all of the people all of the time. I'm actually pretty happy with what we have now because I'd rather not see the internet degenerate into a sleazy cesspit where only the most obnoxious people feel at home. I keep Safe Search on but I like having the option of taking it off even though I never do.

Authoritarians, you can censor your own search results

There's a plethora of net nanny programs in existence, many of which are actually free. If you're less liberal than I am and more keen on keeping filth in the fiery chasm from whence it came, you can add certain keywords to a blacklist and protect items you want by adding them to a whitelist. Result: the clean-as-a-whistle internet for the children, ready to show the vicar when he comes to tea. This is your own responsibility; I understand the need to restrict availability to illegal or harmful content and actually support making it harder to find, given my personal predilections. However, the censorship regime we have now is already over-broad and needs to be relaxed a bit because websites providing information and advice for members of the LGBT community and victims of abuse, etc., are being caught up in the government-mandated net nanny filter.

Discrimination can be a good thing

It's okay to compromise in order to work towards providing an internet service that works for all of us. A safe search option with a blacklist feature that permits individuals to block unwanted content on demand is the best way forward, particularly if it allows access to uncensored content for those who want it. While many will no doubt decry my discriminating against things I don't like, let me remind them that they frequently discriminate against me, making statements that belittle people of faith in order to discredit us and our speech. Discrimination over internet content can be a good thing as long as it is not imposed on the rest of us. I want to find what I am looking for in the search results, not what other people think I ought to find. And that applies to everyone.

The Twofold Principle 

Remember the Twofold Principle: The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected. Blogger's new policy actually achieves that by working to meet the needs of as many people as possible. The individual can discuss innovations in pornography, complete with illustrations. If I happen to do a search on cups, I won't get confronted with something gross while clicking through the results; if I find a site I might not like, it's tucked behind an interstitial warning. Plain packs for adult Blogger blog sites, if you will.

Other platforms are available

I should point out that this only applies to Blogger sites, not adult sites in general; they tend to be hosted elsewhere and their operators are generally not in the least bit interested in addressing conservative sensibilities, except to confront them. Other platforms are available, though they may have similar rules. If you want to post content without being restricted by a platform's policies, host it yourself. Bear in mind that web hosts have acceptable use policies that aren't that different from Blogger's and may be even more restrictive, depending on whether or not you're paying for them.

Why this matters

This story was a big deal because Google owns Blogger and there was a possibility that other companies and blog providers might have followed Blogger's lead, leaving bloggers with large followings on a subdomain scrambling to find a new home for their writings. As it is, that's not going to happen, and I'm glad. I might have ended up being one of them if I'd fallen foul of an automated filtration system based on keywords because I blog about adult subject matter. Thankfully, the powers that be realised that and came to their senses in time.

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