The venerable online community LiveJournal stirred up a storm of controversy when it attempted to delete sex-themed discussion groups in the name of protecting children, and accidentally deleted legitimate literary sites and at least one psychological support journal.
LiveJournal posted a full and complete apology to the people whose blogs were wrongfully suspended. But it's standing by its decision to shut down the child molestation blogs. And that hasn't quieted criticism from people who say that the service should not be censoring content at all.
"LiveJournal, which is owned by San Francisco-based Six Apart, confirmed Wednesday that it deleted around 500 journals this week in hopes of better 'protecting children.' It said the deletion was prompted by activist groups, including one called Warriors for Innocence that claims to track sites promoting pedophilia, the sexual abuse of minors, and other illegal activities." according to a report by News.com's Declan McCullagh.
What do you think? Do the producers of online communities like LiveJournal and Second Life have a right or obligation to draw the line on user-generated content? If they do, where should that line be drawn?
For its part, LiveJournal's abuse staff has defended pulling the plug on the communities by saying: "Material which can be interpreted as expressing interest in, soliciting or encouraging illegal activity places LiveJournal at considerable legal risk." That led one user, "femmequixotic," to reply: "I list 'gay marriage' among my interests--that is illegal in my state. With this wording my journal could be deleted, without warning, for the fact that I support equal rights of marriage for all."
First of all, I agree with "femmquixotic" here that LiveJournal's policy is clumsily written.
And yet, on the larger issue, I don't see a problem here. Advocacy of child molestation, and graphic descriptions of sex involving chldren, have no place on the Internet. As a free-speech advocate, I don't believe the government should ban that content; I don't trust the government with that kind of power. But sites that host content -- such as LiveJournal, and InformationWeek, too, for that matter -- have an obligation to police the content to ensure that the content meets its own standards. And users have an obligation to withhold their business, and attention, to site that run materials they find beyond the bounds of decency.
It's not just hard to tell the difference between good and bad speech -- it's impossible to set an objective standard that everyone agrees on. So the only policy that's safe from turning into tyranny is to allow all speech, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. Yes, people could be harmed; yes, even children. Freedom is more important.
But Wineman is wrong. Free speech includes the right of Six Apart, the owners of the LiveJournal service, to choose whom they will provide a platform to. The right of publishers to choose what they're going to publish is essential to free speech.
LiveJournal user Daniela Bahamondes Sandoval of Santiago, Chile, writes that LiveJournal should not be imposing U.S. laws on an international service:
I'm not a USA citizen. More than half of the users aren't. I'm concious that, being the servers hosted in the USA, the foreign users shall stick to your regulations, but it's still ethically wrong to impose USA cultural views in users who aren't under those laws, or have a different set of morals. It's self-righteous, and doesn't go with the spirit of the original community, before Six Apart took over.
Sandoval is wrong, too. Six Apart is an American company and therefore subject to American law. Moreover (I keep coming back to this), it's the company's platform and it has a right -- and obligation! -- to set the terms of what kind of content it permits.
LiveJournal users also criticize the service by listing many literary works, including Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Juliet is 13 or 14 years old when married), Mary Shelley's Mathilde, Sophocles' Oedipus plays, and It by Stephen King, as depicting sexual relations between minor children.
I think these LiveJournal users are wrong, too. Romeo and Juliet, and the King work, at least, do not contain graphic portrayals of underage sex. And that's where decent people need to draw the line.
This came up several weeks ago, when Linden Lab, producers of the virtual world Second Life, announced a crackdown on simulated and real child pornography.