Sunday, December 12, 2010

Censuring Online Comstockery

It’s time Americans denounce the content policies of social networks, forums and other online companies who censor user content, often deleting user’s entire accounts and their past history, with little or no warning.

As online behemoths ubiquitously weave themselves ever more into all the ways we communicate —
even partnering user’s access with other sites—  will we, or even our government under existing laws, have the ability to oppose corporate online policing, most specifically for that most nuanced and largely constitutionally unprotected category of speech—that of our sex?

This question is posed on a sexual free speech anniversary of sorts. The term “comstockery” first appeared in a NY Times editorial 115 years ago today on 12/12/1895 .  It plead the case for giving financial donations to help free an imprisoned bookshop owner arrested under the Comstock censorship Act, his family left without means to support themselves, unable to pay his fine. Archival evidence has yet to confirm that the term was actually coined by the New York Times editorial staff. ( The playwright George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States,” in his 1905 response to a New York Times reporter, is more famously associated with the word .) But it does appear that the editorial was the first time the word reached a wide print audience.

William L. Clements Library, University Michigan
Presumably the coining of “comstockery” employed an intonation of “mockery” of the law, perhaps with secondary metaphor of the Puritan’s pillory “stocks,” since those convicted under Comstock were imprisoned and publicly humiliated. Named after the impassioned New York do-gooder Anthony Comstock, who single handedly, albeit with blessings of New York’s J.P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate, inspired Congress to pass his law with little less than a day’s debate, the Comstock Act of 1873 effectively became the granddaddy of American censorship laws. It spawned a menagerie of Little Comstock Acts throughout the states in the late 19th century, setting precedence for birthing current censorship laws and supreme court decisions to our present day.

In our own blasé, R-rated “sex sells” culture, most all of us— many not so happily— assume that the sexual revolution had been won in the 60s . Sexual politics of important lifestyle concerns--gay rights, abortion, discrimination and sex education, rage on. But we’ve won the right to titillate; so long as private business allows.

The Gilded Age’s turn- of- the- century brand of censorship was largely governmentally directed. Our own federal laws (portions of Comstock are still on the books) and state censorship still restrict our sexual expressions in everything from sex toys to attempts to levy taxes on mainstream book sellers for books that might have sexual content.

But the greater threat is that of business policies that shape our public discourse, in large part censoring adults under the auspices of child protection.

Sexual accountability and responsibility do depend upon balancing freedoms with protections.

Appropriate-age education of children is indeed a huge societal concern.

But the issue of censoring adults lies between the intercourse of individual and business constitutional rights of speech (including rights to restrict) within the Supreme Court’s compromise decision of empowering local “community standards,” while leaving undefined what constitutes an online “public square.”

That’s because the dirty little paradox is that American’s sexual speech is not explicitly protected under the First Amendment, and therefore has no one superseding law to protect it. What is obscene or just offensive, what has cultural value or is purely prurient? A sample ride between Supreme Court Justice’s statements about private and public sexual expression shows the dilemma.

Stewart— “I know it when I see it;”
Frankfurter— (the Government may not) "reduce the adult population . . . to . . . only what is fit for children.”
Stevens— “…the level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox."
Kennedy— “…emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.”
Scalia’s dissent to Kennedy’s majority opinion— “It is clear from this that the Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed.”
Ironically, it might be the legal victories of porn, that also helped access but hurt the greater freedoms of sexual education and the arts. Compelled by its commercial thrust to adopt a euphemistically designated “adult” label, the term became code not just for porn but for all sexual content, with the connotation that “adult,” and therefore its audience, were synonymously an indulgence in accessible yet “naughty” taboo.

Online companies censor for business convenience, not moral conviction.

The industry standardized TOS defaults lump the prohibition of sexual content (adult, obscene, offensive, nudity, porn) in the same breath as hate language. Haphazard policies like Yahoo Groups allow the word “sexuality” for group names, but prevent a group to be created if it uses the unadulterated word “sex.” The majority of e-commerce and hosting companies restrict sexual content and commerce. And online social networks and forums often delete a person’s profile, if just one offended person clicks a link to the site’s TOS employee.

Notably, it just took one person, Anthony Comstock to effect an entire country’s restrictions on arts, literature and family planning.  

The Biblical Greek gnosis and Hebrew yada ( as in Elaine’s “yada-yada” Seinfeld skit) describe a general “knowledge from experience,” and in particular “sexual knowing.” Sex creates us; we are born ready-made with our sexual gender. Strip away all your earthly possessions, be in the midst of poverty or war, you still have your sex. “Family Values” “Sex Positive” and “Adult,” have all been hijacked by groups who advocate their sexual partisanship. Not one of us should disallow the ongoing sharing of sexual knowledge, most especially our much hailed democratic new media.

If social networks are concerned with protecting children, they are technically capable of creating alternatives to censorship. Opt-in family versions of their sites would allow G-Rated only content without infringing on the rest of us.                                                                          
Filter options like Google’s Safe Search already provide parents, and any adult who prefers not to view certain content, user choice. Blogger, prompts blog creators with the choice to define their site for those over 18 years old, though it’s somewhat controversial since it limits search optimization,

The wisdom of crowds, as an off branch of community standards, do have some merit. Instituting broad panels of diversely educated adults to reflect the Internet’s reach would be a more responsible alternative to lone corporate censoring.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court should address whether mammoth online corporations constitute public squares.

And most importantly, Congress needs to include sexual speech under First Amendment protections. Sexual speech that is primarily hate, abusive or spam should be addressed under those broader categories.

IT IS TIME that America's democracy sexually matures; whose citizens understand the significance that our sexual knowledge is diverse, bound to our humanity and inclusive of the very definition of democracy itself.

Or as G.B. Shaw ended his 1905 letter, “ I do not say that my books and plays cannot do harm to weak or dishonest people. They can, and probably do. But if the American character cannot stand that fire
 even at the earliest age at which it is readable or intelligible, there is no future for America.”

Friday, October 08, 2010

The dangerous child play of Facebook

For a long year now, I've wanted to post again to this blog. Yet, my lack of infrastructures--- the continual shift and unknowing of not having my own home for over 5 years, the viral attacks on three of my websites in the summer of '09 ( making them unusable in early '10 and still not repaired), a long-time house cleaning client I've needed to sue for both monies owed me and her sudden reckless attack on my ethics and character, and all the many other day to day family and work and health and money interruptions that each and every one of us faces in different degrees, that unsettle our ways--- have left me exhausted and often too hopeless and unconfident to bother to write, no matter the importance of the cause.

So, here, something as trivial as Facebook has me writing in the wee early hours of the morning. I posted this image from our book III (THREE): The Fantasy and Experience of Threesome Sex a few days ago to my Crystal Haidl Facebook profile, with a statement that this was one of the few images from our book that showed neither breast, nor derriere, nor private parts.

A book that had to be printed outside of the US because small US print shops told me they were afraid of their other clients, or their employees, being upset with the content.  A book that was censored by PayPal (reinstated after 4 years and a few hour long phone calls with their attorneys.) A book that had endured a 4 year battle with one of our own photographers, who lied to me, even in writing, but was able to navigate the legal system, forcing me into a settlement , or else, to endure the costs and time of an ongoing court battle.

[Note-- the image here is from one of our other wonderful photographers, who allowed us use rights to promote the book.  ] And this image is in the book that the Library of Congress accepted in its General Collections, just weeks before the annual American Library's Association's national Banned Books Week. Go check it out next time you're in DC.

Over the past few days,  about a half-dozen FB friends posted their approval of the above image on my wall.  No one was crude; a couple of  variations of "Wow"'  and one very foretelling comment referenced Bill Clinton's famous definition of "is,is" for what is sex and what is not.

Then, at 3:27 AM yesterday morning FB sent an email to me entitled "Facebook Warning. " Turns out, when I logged into my profile around 8 AM that what Facbook calls a Warning seems to be Facebook-speak for "Your account is disabled."

The email stated that I uploaded a photo that violates their terms of service, and this photo has been removed.  Facebook FAQ also states on their site that they can not give any identifying information about the image that was removed due to "security" issues. Was there a possible smart bomb code embedded in our photo? Oh, my!

FB goes on to say that "These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children who use the site."
SO, I ask you, let's assume there's a 98% chance that the photo above is the REMOVED image.  No other images, except for a RIP to my old truck and few of a garden were posted recently.(ahha, birds and bees do it with the garden, and all that sexual pollination... I know, I know. You should see the squirrels and their nuts and hear the sea gulls, too! )
But really, take another look at this picture    --->  

Pretend you are 6 years old. What would you, an innocent child imagine?
A white woman with long hair and a black man with a tattoo are hugging, and they aren't wearing any clothes. Oh, and a tall white man is busy taking a shower in the background, and he doesn't see them. So, a child might ask, why are they hugging in the bathroom? Why is the man holding the lady's leg up? Is she hurt? Is he helping her to use the potty? Is he crying on her shoulder?

Sex would not be the question.

Isn't it only a person who already understands the range of physical intimacies that humans have with each other who would be able to see the suggestion of the image? There is no anatomical body part that alludes to something forbidden. There is no facial expression showing orgiastic delight. The bodies are not in throws of passionate tension. Their pelvises are not in a bump and grind. They are relaxed. They are beginning an embrace, even slightly clumsily one could say; he is helping her and she is leaning on his suport.

My FB images protections had been set so that only friends and their friends could view them. And FB's rules disallow any child under the age of 13 to have a FB account. A 13 year old, hopefully knows about the basics of sexuality. Yes, he or she would know that the image was evoking a sensual moment. They'd  certainly be curious. And maybe bored.

If a youth truly wants to see sex this image is a poor choice. A click of the remote, a glimpse at the supermarket check out, or perusing a plethora of other online options would show them the get-down- and dirty in seconds. If Facebook was truly concerned about kids, it would create a Facebook Youth opt-in, a site for kids and their families with features specific for those families that want g-rated content.

It is the media and the religious charlatans, and our focused obsessions with titillation and the commericalization of sex, rather than seeing the beauty of its complexities, of its sensualities, which makes this type of image subject to Facebook's terms of removal. (Like hate and violence, that the word sex is often grouped with, sexuality and its perceptions are considered social network aka societal contraband.)

How potent your sex is!

Meanwhile, as Facebook shouts "Warning " when they really mean "Disabled," which is the more abusive to you?  A multi-billion dollar company that fails to be be clear with its words, that refuses to allow time-dated information or vague description of the image, so that the person can possibly defend what they posted,  or is it the offense of an image that shows the side views of two people, without clothes, in embrace?

Personally, I'd rather the children and young teens that I know, and my future grand children and extended relatives, live in a world where they know adults protect them with sexual guidance and an ethics of honesty, over corporate-faux moralistic protectionism that in reality continues the charade of society hiding truths.

What about you?