This morning, when I learned that web host Rackspace had shut down the site of the Dove World Outreach Center, I did something rather unbecoming of an anti-censorship advocate: I cheered a little.
The thing is, I’ve been pretty sick over this issue. I’ve always abided by the adage, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And in advocating for online freedom, I’ve most certainly defended people whose views I don’t believe in. But in light of this particular issue, and of the somewhat similar issue of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s departure from radio (in the “free speech doesn’t guarantee you an audience” sense), I’ve had to do some thinking.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first: Rackspace shutting down the page of a customer is an instance of what Ethan Zuckerman would call “intermediary censorship” and it happens all the time. In the afore-linked book chapter, Ethan digs into a variety of examples, from Chinese blogging hosts censoring content on their platforms to the possibly overblocking of Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese, and Cuban nationals from certain American sites based on the rather unclear export control directives. It happens here too, with Facebook a prime culprit, deactivating the accounts of those deemed to have violated TOS, often without a clear appeals process.
It’s also worth pointing out that Rackspace can make a reasonable case that the site was indeed in violation of its TOS, whether you agree with them or not. In the vast majority of account deactivation cases I’ve covered, the company was able to make the argument that the person in question violated the platform’s terms. And I would imagine most of you agree with me when I say that companies must draw the line somewhere. Often, then, the problem is where they draw it, how they communicate to users, and ultimately, how they enforce it.
Interestingly, when I posited this discussion to some friends, some were surprised to hear me call it censorship. One friend claimed that this incident isn’t censorship, but rather, “a business deciding who they want to work with.” An interesting argument, for sure, and one that I think draws a line between types of OSPs — namely, web hosts versus proprietary platforms (including blog hosts and social media platforms of all kinds).
In looking for offline examples to differentiate these two situations, I’m a bit stuck. The best I could come up with is this: A small number of academics, including Zeynep Tufekci, have drawn parallels between the quasi-public sphere of Facebook and that of a mall or company town. Therefore, I posit that, if Facebook is a mall in the sense that people are restricted from certain activities (e.g., handing out political flyers or wearing t-shirts with racist slogans on them), then web hosts are mall developers, in the sense that they lease out their space to certain vendors. A mall must draw the line somewhere as to what types of shops it allows to lease space; after all, very few malls allow stores that sell pornography or drug paraphernalia (funny sidenote: my local mall totally hosts a store that sells bongs). Others might restrict T-shirt stores known to sell shirts with racist slogans.
I’m not completely wed to this analogy, and am hoping others might weigh in, but here’s the main reason I think it’s important to draw a distinction: Whereas Facebook, as well as most popular social media platforms, are free for users, webhosting costs money, sometimes a lot of it. Webhosting is much more of a traditional business-customer relationship; I pay for a service, they provide it to me. A webhost is therefore like a developer, filling its hostspace with the types of businesses it wants.
Now, I realize that’s not actually how webhosts work. Most of the time, they’re just looking for money, and will rarely remove content without being asked to do so by authorities. And that’s what makes this case all the more interesting.