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.”

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