If Facebook is a Mall, Web Hosts are Mall Developers

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.

6 replies on “If Facebook is a Mall, Web Hosts are Mall Developers”

first reaction, loss of respect for rackspace, will look to see how @scobleizer presents this …

as to the shopping mall analogy .. i think of isp’s as utilities like the water company … and cannot conceive of one of those shutting off dove’s water because of a theatrical/political/egoic publicity campaign …

and i have to say, to put me in a context for you, i don’t care at all about anybody burning a bible or a koran or the vedas … reactions both pro and con are all about ego, and to me that renders them as immature

so, utilitiy, not developer

Hi Gregory,

Thanks for your comment – a utility analogy could work as well. The only issue I see in your argument is that we’re not talking about ISPs, but rather OSPs — or online service providers. One’s Internet access (which I would argue is nearly a utility at this point) isn’t cut off but rather one’s ability to use a certain service provider in the netspace.

I’m still torn on the specifics of this, honestly.

Jillian, thanks for writing about this, and thanks in particular for being honest about your emotions. I think cases like these, which pull out the tensions between support for free speech and anger at the nature of that speech, are fascinating ones. As much as I admire advocates like Burton Joseph (the lawyer of Jewish heritage who won a court case on behalf of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America, allowing them to march in Skokie, IL) I often find myself conflicted when there’s a conflict that involves defending the speech rights of people who I wish would just shut up.

I think Gregory’s comment is very helpful in unpacking this situation. On an intuitive level, I think many of us expect online service providers (web hosting providers, social network operators) to behave like utilities, providing service without considering the content they’re carrying, unless alerted that the content violates copyright or other laws. Indeed, DMCA 512 was designed to allow OSPs to avoid the legal morass that would arise if ISPs/OSPs were held liable for contributory infringement.

But OSPs invariably require adherence to terms of service which generally allow the OSP a great deal of latitude in terminating users. The argument I made in the article you cite is that this makes OSPs more like malls and less like utilities, even if we expect them to provider power and water to anyone able to pay for it. I’m not arguing for OSPs to be regulated like utilities and required to provide services for everyone, but I’m trying to raise the issue that we may need OSPs that provide services to controversial sites if OSPs like Rackspace exercise their rights to deny service to organizations like Dove World Outreach Center.

There are lots of good reasons why Rackspace would want to terminate Dove WOC as a client – the negative publicity alone probably outweighs what little revenue they get from hosting the site, never mind the potential costs of fending off DDoS, hacking attacks, etc. My question – where does Dove go in this case? They can seek other OSPs who might be less picky about their clientele, but it’s possible that such a highly visible site would be chased off other services. At a certain point, are they left with the prospect of having a T1 run to their facility and administering their own server? I suspect ISPs might have similar concerns – reputation, DDoS – about providing connectivity directly to the church.

As much as I disagree with Dove WOC, I worry about the challenges of enabling speech for unpopular speakers. The arguments for why Rackspace wouldn’t want to host Dove could apply all too easily to sites you and I both want to see remain online.

You are torn on the specifics because you view burning copies of the Quran as necessarily hateful. It’s as simple as that. If you viewed it as a much needed action to force Islam and Muslims to adapt to modernity, secularism and liberal democracy, you would condemn the authorities’ intervention (FBI, Pentagon, White House…) in the affair, and say that had the authorities not intervened, this would be a person in breach of a contract and the affair has nothing to do with freedom of expression.

Frankly, what would Obama have done if it was bibles being burnt by some obscure Hindu sect? The bible is constantly ridiculed in public, Jesus derided and Christians laughed at, and the government butts out. Why the double-standard when it comes to Muslims? It’s clear that nobody cares about religious individuals being offended except when it’s Muslims? Are they all scared?


One doesn’t need to think burning a Qur’an is a good idea to condemn the authorities’ intervention. I think it’s absurd that the FBI, Pentagon, and White House felt the need to get involved in what should have been a minor event. For what it’s worth, I didn’t see much attention from the American Muslim community toward this either. Nobody was protesting, or even paying much attention.

That said, I don’t think burning anyone’s holy book is a solution for “forcing them” into anything, and I do agree with you that this man is protected by the first amendment. You, however, seemed to ignore what this post is actually about–private vs. public spaces online–so you could push your own agenda. Real classy, Salma.

I appreciate your comments Ethan, and the more I think about, the more I’m concerned as well, for exactly the reason you cite (though that doesn’t change the inner feeling of cheer, to be honest): An OSP terminating a site like this sets a precedent for terminating all other kinds of unpopular speech as well.

I’d be curious to see how often Rackspace applies their policy to other users. Googling it is almost futile — “Rackspace terminates site” seems to bring only results for this latest event, leading me to believe that they are in fact applying their TOS extremely selectively, and I of course agree that that is problematic.

At the same time, I’m still not sure I view hosting providers on the same level as social media platforms, and I think this requires more thought on my part.

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