Monday, July 05, 2010

words and their power

Over the past couple of weeks I have found myself fielding seemingly endless challenges and insults on Twitter, Facebook and various other places both online and off, as I voiced my incredulity at being censored by a copyright discussion group whose stated purpose is to promote “fairness” in the copyright reform debate.

As a longtime professional writer who has been active in freedom of expression advocacy for longer even than I have been working in the free expression biz, I take the removal of my words and voice from public discussion very seriously indeed. And because I am so protective of my own right to speak, I tend to be just as protective of everyone else’s right to speak as well.

While serving in various official functions with organizations devoted to free expression, I have delved deep into the ugliness and violence of human speech, including definitions, official and otherwise, of hate-speech. I feel it is my responsibility to always remind myself that words have immense power to do harm; and at the same time, I insistently seek a balance that reduces the risk of harm, without reducing free speech. This is by no means an easy balance to find or maintain.

I enjoy a good round of Internet trench warfare myself, and I’m certainly not above throwing a strong jab here and there (especially a witty one); but I find the instant hyperbolic extremism of much web-chat to be distressing and almost always unhelpful. Such an instance has recently arisen in the comments section of my blog. A commenter, voicing support for my position against the censorship practiced by The Fair Copyright for Canada York Region chapter included a disparagement against Dr. Michael Geist that wounded him personally.

While I have not removed the comment from my stream, I regret that Dr. Geist was so deeply offended in what I consider to be “my house” on the Internet. I apologize to him for the personal discomfort he has suffered, and I would like to stress here that I prefer all comments, but most especially those in support of my positions to take the high road on personal attacks. It is for that very reason that I often focus my own criticism on the ill-defined and easy anti-corporate, anti-American, anti-Conservative hyperbole of much of the copyleft chatter.

In his brilliant manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, silicon valley pioneer Jaron Lanier dissects the ugly behaviors of much online chat, the “pack dynamics,” “drive-by anonymity” or what in an earlier posting I called a nasty pile-on energy.

Lanier writes:

“The Internet has come to be saturated with an ideology of violation.”


Why I Don’t Remove Comments, as a Rule

Over the five or so years I have been operating a public blog at johndegen.com, I have never removed a legitimate comment from my comment stream. As I often discuss copyright here, my blog can at times receive a large number of comments, and many of them… well, most of them, are less than complimentary to my thoughts and positions on creator copyright issues. A good number of them are, in my opinion, rude, insulting, unnecessarily confrontational and intentionally provocative. Yet, they all stand.

For a short period of time, I used the Blogger.com technology to actively moderate the comments in an attempt to avoid commercial comment SPAM, but found, especially during heated discussion that it provided me with too-tempting a power to control the conversation. I want no part of that temptation. Instead, I moderate by challenging and discussing the various comments, and by making my opinion clear about as many as possible, but certainly all of the truly despicable ones. This involves a serious time commitment, for which I receive some grief from my close family. “Why do you bother? They will never change their minds,” is a common refrain in the Degen household. My answer is always the same. “I’m not trying to change their minds; I’m trying to keep my own points clear and visible despite the flying mud.”


On Censorship

Since complaining about being censored by FCFC-YR, the most disturbing (to me) comments I’ve received have been along the lines of – being kicked out of a web-chat forum is not censorship – real censorship is only done by those in authority, like the government.

I disagree – while I think being booted from FCFC-YR may not have done much at all to keep me from talking about copyright in other places, it was the very definition of censorship. And since making the decision to remove me and my written posts from the group site, FCFC-YR has made various attempts to explain and excuse their actions, as though they too could see that a good-faith line had been crossed.

I was initially told that posts I’d made were not consistent with the group’s principles. No examples were given. I was then told that I had personally attacked group members, including Dr. Geist. No examples were given. Then it was explained that writings on my own blog presented a danger to group members, opening them up to attacks because their personal information was available on the group site. Finally, well after the fact, the reasoning was changed once again, and I am out of the group because I do not currently live in York Region (FYI – I grew up in York Region, maintain close family connections there, and consider myself both well-acquainted with and invested in the region).

I will continue to argue that all of these reasons are false and completely without merit, and I am personally insulted by the continued suggestion that my views on copyright represent some sort of physical danger to those with differing opinions. Despite being a very public voice in the copyright debate, I have never once felt personally threatened by those who oppose my views, though I have often sensed attempts to intimidate me. I believe I was removed from the group for two simple reasons – to suppress my views within the group, and to discourage me from continuing to advocate for artists rights under copyright.

To quote from The Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee:

The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others. We accept that courts alone have the authority to restrict reading material, a prerogative that cannot be delegated or appropriated. Prior restraint demeans individual responsibility; it is anathema to freedom and democracy.

… we abhor arbitrary interpretations of the law and other attempts to limit freedom of expression. We recognize court judgments; otherwise, we oppose the detention, seizure, destruction, or banning of books and periodicals – indeed, any effort to deny, repress, or sanitize. Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.


I am aware that I have many other avenues for expressing my views on copyright, including this blog and even on the main group page for FCFC (though I can’t say I feel particularly confident about speaking my mind over there these days). I continue to be distressed and really quite shocked that no-one on the user-rights advocacy side has taken a prominent public position against the actions of FCFC-YR, since I feel censorship demeans us all, no matter our feelings about intellectual property laws and practices.

Clearly something has occurred within the FCFC community, because the administrator who banned me from his group has recently resigned his position, taking pains to make his own rather insulting and personal attacks against both me and Dr. Geist on his way out. I would like to think FCFC has made some sort of official policy declaration against the practice of arbitrary membership-banning and comment removal, but the issue remains unfortunately shrouded behind ideological positioning.

All that said, I want to reiterate that anyone and everyone is welcome to read my blog and to express their own views in my comments sections regardless of their ideological nearness to or distance from my own expressed views. I am aware that many other blogs practice a form of sliding-scale censorship in order to discourage anonymous comments, nasty personal attacks and threatening behavior, but I don’t want to adopt such a policy for my own very personal reasons. I don't judge others with clear and defined comment rules and strict removal-style moderation; I just walk a different path.

I therefore ask you all to please respect the ground rules. Of course, I expect comments such as Degen must not be taking his meds, you’re a troll, are you bi-polar, or something? or Get a life, man to continue, but let’s try to at least keep it above the belt and think before hitting the Submit button.

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16 comments:

Anonymous said...

hi John

i find your attitude toward comments interesting. i blog too, frequently about gun control (i'm in favour of it). as you can imagine, some of the comments i get are...well, let's just call them "highly inflammatory." but i have no problem deleting the nasty ones, on occasion, because it's MY BLOG and if they want to foam at the mouth about me, they can start up their OWN blog.

my two cents worth.

Darryl said...

John, I think we've been around this whole censorship thing before with the Titanic/Kate Winslet thing.

We both agreed this was a form of censorship, but we took opposite sides regarding who the censors and victims were. It was certainly enlightening to see a position expressed that was 180 degrees different from my own.

It is obvious you feel strongly about censorship, but interestingly you sometimes see it where it does not exist, and other times miss it where it is quite blatant. I think the latter generally occurs where the law of copyright is the tool being used to execute the dirty deed.

Russell is quite right about your misuse of the term however. To cry censorship when some small web site wont let post belittles the meaning of the word. Barry Sookman filters every comment to his site. creatorscopyright.ca does not display any comments. No one is complaining about them.

In this post you apologized to Geist for the discomfort he felt in your "house" on the Internet. As with a real house, you have every right to control who may come into it. You can't barge into your neighbours house and launch into a tirade then cry censorship when they toss you out. Same deal here and at FCFC-YR.

Your whining and complaining about censorship here, where it doesn't exist, only diminishes the the perceived seriousness of it when it does occur elsewhere.

Darryl said...

John, I think we've been around this whole censorship thing before with the Titanic/Kate Winslet thing.

We both agreed this was a form of censorship, but we took opposite sides regarding who the censors and victims were. It was certainly enlightening to see a position expressed that was 180 degrees different from my own.

It is obvious you feel strongly about censorship, but interestingly you sometimes see it where it does not exist, and other times miss it where it is quite blatant. I think the latter generally occurs where the law of copyright is the tool being used to execute the dirty deed.

Russell is quite right about your misuse of the term however. To cry censorship when some small web site wont let post belittles the meaning of the word. Barry Sookman filters every comment to his site. creatorscopyright.ca does not display any comments. No one is complaining about them.

In this post you apologized to Geist for the discomfort he felt in your "house" on the Internet. As with a real house, you have every right to control who may come into it. You can't barge into your neighbours house and launch into a tirade then cry censorship when they toss you out. Same deal here and at FCFC-YR.

Your whining and complaining about censorship here, where it doesn't exist, only diminishes the the perceived seriousness of it when it does occur elsewhere.

P.S. Trying again. Last post didn't seem to take. or..... perhaps it was "censored"?.... naaaa.

Russell McOrmond said...

John,

You can go ahead and name names in my case. I participate in these forums under my real name as I stand by my comments, and will continue to fight for creators rights and free speech rights against ideas (and sometimes persons) that I feel are harming these rights.

I am the (or one) person who is saying that if filtering is happening by someone that is not an authority, government or otherwise, then that filtering is not censorship. Having your SPAM filters too high, or deleting messages you don't like for any reason from a private forum you administrate, is not censorship.

We are both disturbed by each others comments. I find it disturbing to see someone (ab)use the word censorship in this manner as, in my mind, it belittles victims of actual censorship. I have been fighting for free speech likely as long as you have (given we are about the same age), possibly longer online (just because I'm a geek that got online as early as I could).

My line for free speech is further on the unfiltered side than most, given I think that our current hate speech and defamation laws are a bit too strong. I've been critical of the Canadian Human Rights Commission for its desire to censor (see -- authority, with power of the state) speech. I may find the speech they wish to filter disgusting, and I am not personally interested to be subjected to it, but that doesn't mean I believe it should be censored. In fact, I wish there was a government funded body whose mandate it was to "correct the record" on such hateful speech, rather than giving the speech more power by attempting to censor it.


I don't have the agree with the reasons for the filtering by any given proprietor of a forum. In this case, I don't as I could have guessed you would have used the filtering in your ongoing desire to discredit anyone associated with the Fair Copyright for Canada label. You see, FCFC isn't a group with leadership, but a label used by people who have a relatively compatible philosophy on copyright. While Michael Geist is seen as coining the term (I attribute it to Laura Murray), that's the extent of it -- he is not a "leader" in the management sense, only a thought leader.

It's clear you don't share that philosophy, and label nearly every creator associated with that label as "copy left" (Meaning "Other, not like me"). That’s fine for me, and I'm used to the people who call themselves the "copy right" to be trying to label me as something other than a creators' rights advocate. I may feel constantly insulted by this incorrect labelling, but I'm not going to personally filter based on that.


I think Jason lashed out at Michael because Michael didn't back the decision to use filters in the York Region forum. In my case I did back the decision, not because I thought the specific filtering was something I would have done personally, but because I will fight for the right of forum proprietors to make that decision for themselves. As I indicated, I don't need proof that the decision was justified: I just support the right or proprietors of forums to make that decision.

Unlike you and I who have become used to disagreeing with fellow creators, including ones we consider to be quite insulting at times (we feel that of each other), Jason didn't see the point in continuing to be a target. While the two of us learn about our own positions by having ongoing conversations with people we disagree with, and continue despite family and friends telling us to get out, Jason took a different path.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Darryl's reference to Kate Winslet links to this earlier post on my blog in which I discuss the sanitizing of Kate Winslet's nudity from DVD copies of Titanic rented out by a Utah movie rental company.

I continue to believe that the purchase of copies of a film gives the purchasers no rights over the expression on the copy (unless those rights are specifically transferred by contract).

If the Utah rental firm did not want its customers accosted by Kate Winslet's nipples, they should have chosen not to rent the movie at all. The covering over of various body parts during nude scenes in a film is probably one of the most obvious and blatant forms of censorship. That anyone could disagree with this point gives me very little hope for the state of digital ethics.

Jason K said...

@Russell

"I think Jason lashed out at Michael because Michael didn't back the decision to use filters in the York Region forum. In my case I did back the decision, not because I thought the specific filtering was something I would have done personally, but because I will fight for the right of forum proprietors to make that decision for themselves. As I indicated, I don't need proof that the decision was justified: I just support the right or proprietors of forums to make that decision.

Unlike you and I who have become used to disagreeing with fellow creators, including ones we consider to be quite insulting at times (we feel that of each other), Jason didn't see the point in continuing to be a target. While the two of us learn about our own positions by having ongoing conversations with people we disagree with, and continue despite family and friends telling us to get out, Jason took a different path."

I have to disagree with this statement Russell. I didn't "lash out" on Geist in my blog post rather pointed to area's of disagreement I have with him. If anyone has "lashed out" on this issue it has been Geist himself, with some pretty mean comments on John he has provided through e-mail to me, yet has offered nothing in support on the decision to kick out a known "Troll" as Geist has called him from the FCFC group.

My points of disagreement with Geist have been communicated over the years to several politicans asking me specifically on points I've raised in my copyright blog since 2007, as it relates to the economic impact of the situation, and how to better the pay of Canadian's creators rather than focusing on some irrelivent "Artistic Rights" which have done nothing for the creative community where reform has taken place over the past 12 years.

I personally think more attention needs to be placed on how to increase pay for the artistic community, and many creators are engaged in that conversation right now with Government, and John's group of minions has refused a seat at this table, opting for a 3 strikes law that will not be supported by the voting public, and has very little chance at getting through imo.

I couldn't care less about being a target. I think Russell you mis-understood what I was saying with respect to family. My wife has read a lot of these responses to this. Everytime she does, she laughs and stays "and this is over a facebook group. How old are these people?"

I've left this conversation not in fear of being a target, rather in engaging in the debate where it stands now on copyright on a professional level, not with childish behavior coming from both sides of this debate. I'm interested in focusing on the economic facts, not the bull shit that turns the copyright debate away from what's currently being discussed.

John said...

Jason,

I'd like to clarify a couple of points here that you've made about me. You insist that I support a 3 strikes rule. I don't.

I think 3 strikes is an interesting discussion piece and should be on the table in some form, as it places the responsibility for piracy where it belongs - with the pirate and not with the creator. That said, I am undecided on any final design for infringement punishment and am interested to see how it is interpreted at the C-32 committee.

As well, I don't have "minions." I speak for myself. In the past, I have been paid to be a professional representative of professional writers, but that is not my role now. Undoubtedly, there are many professional artists who support my views (and many who do not), but I neither lead nor follow on this issue... I simply speak my own mind (when I'm allowed to).

As well, I think you unintentionally confuse two of my positions. My concern for artists rights is not inseperable from my concern that creators find a workable digital market solution for dismal pay. The concepts link here and there, naturally, but the are discrete.

I am with you 100% on "monetizing the networks," as are, I think, most professional artists. Let's get there.

We do seem to disagree on moral points around file-sharing and piracy. I think the principles of compensation for use and respect for IP ownership are foundational to a future digital marketplace for creative works. So, I argue strongly for those things.

In the end, it looks to me like you and I have different priorities, not real disagreements as far as I can tell.

The censorship issue is its own thing. Clearly, most of the commenters here are sticking to their guns on that point, but I'm well used to that. The real perniciousness of censorship is that it is often so easy to excuse - which is exactly why I'm so careful with it.

I am sorry my personal issue put you in such an uncomfortable position with Dr. Geist. It sounds like you received a bit of pressure from him privately. I do find it interesting that he would call me a "troll" in the context of remarks I made on my own blog. Weird.

Jason K said...

John,

I think the morality issue with respect to P2P is an old one, and professionally when you bring morality into any business you are doomed for failure. The past 12 years in the US and around the globe is evidence of the failure on the morality issues. I think it's time we start making money from P2P, rather than focusing on more on proven failed morality attempts that haven't provided creators with a pay raise in over a decade!

You are a part of Balancecopyright.ca are you not? These individuals believe in punishing users for the use of P2P? Exactly how to they propose to do this?

Those responsible for funding this group, believe in the 3 strike policy, you are guilty in my books by association on the 3 strikes policy, unless this group you belong to publicly releases it's position on user sanctions, and how they plan on enforcing a moral aspect towards their businesses.

Both you and I are creators, we have different positions, but in order to get to what exactly we're all after we have to learn from the failures of the past and move forward. Continuing those failures will only serve to further damage an industry that has seen enough carnage imo.

Jason K said...

I also wanted to formally apologize to you for any offending remarks, I've made. I've edited my blog post to reflect this. I think the copyright debate is an emotional one, and sometimes us creators on all sides have a hard time separating emotion on our work. We are both very passionate people with respect to protecting our pay cheques, but I think this debate can be better servered on the business end if that emotion subsides and we look at the economic rationally and fully understand what's going on to further our combined goal.

Unlike Geist, I'm not worried about my reputation here, I'm concerned about putting forth solutions that will benefit all. I invite you an others to take a look at my blog postings. Disagree or agree it doesn't matter but my views on moving forward and making money from P2P are shared my almost everyone I've spoken with in the music and media industries outside and inside CRIA member labels.

A lot of those with the CRIA are being actively censored and can't speak for themselves due to contract obligations and fear of litigation, but the vast majority of our talent in Canada do not agree with their views.

The economics of this is complicated, but if you take the time to understand it, I think you'll come across the same point of view many of us have had in the music industry. Granted it's not all about music, but the music industry can be an example of what not to do in the future to avoid failure and collapse.

That being said my fav song of all time is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He82NBjJqf8

Cheers,
Jason

John said...

Jason,

I appreciate the tone change and will amend my posting accordingly tomorrow when I'm not working from an iPhone without wifi - my provider is having heatwave issues I think.

I do "belong" to Balanced Copyright in the same way I belong to FCFC and for the same reason - to partake in the discussion. That I am considered a troll in one forum and an ally in another says more about the individual groups than it does about me, I think.

Without hyperbole, I am a great admirer of MLK jr., so perhaps that informs my belief that moral questions do not disappear with age. I believe that unauthoriEd file-sharing is wrong, and that the great age of excusing and finding apologies for it is a shameful chapter for society.

The key word there - for both of us, I think- is "unauthorized." I believe corporations have learned a hard lesson about litigation and would rather authorize than punish. I think we should give them, and independents an equal chance. Perhaps I have more comfort with this idea because I don't start from a place of hatred with corps. I have partnered happily with corporate entities and come away morally unscathed and somewhat better off financially.

By the way, to give everyone an indication of my flexibility here, the much maligned Barry Sookman and I have previously sat on opposite sides of the industrial table - he representing a Corp. and me paying a lawyer to rep writers in the famous Heather Robertson v. Thomson Corp CSC case. Despite all that, I rather like Barry and think he is intellectually independent, and smarter than most on IP issues.

MJD said...

Fair use rights exist solely to placate the fact that copyright infringes on the freedom of expression. Without copyright I take your poetry book, put on a clown nose and read it aloud. With copyright I need permission to do so, OR I may only use a small part.

Fair use was to allow me to discuss and express myself about copyrighted material by using a small sample.

Without fair use I would be silenced. I'd have to make strange references which did not give away context, I could not quote, I could not do much. My hands would be bound.

Fair use is used in the USA to allow copyright and first amendment to exist and it is used here to allow copyright and Charter section 2(b) to co-exist.

If you take away our fair use rights, you take away our freedom of expression.

John said...

I think Jason makes a very interesting point about reputations. I am also not in this discussion to improve, build or protect my reputation. I am what I am -- a professional Canadian literary writer who happens also to be a public servant.

If I were interested in protecting my reputation with readers, I suppose I would jump on side with those few "name" artists who opine publicly about not wanting to "sue their fans," while continuing to enjoy the fruits of their industry's long struggle with unauthorized file-sharing.

I am in this, as I've always said, because I don't want to arrive in the utopian digital marketplace of the near-now with fewer rights as a creator.

But there certainly are a small subset of players in these discussions whose investment is less concrete -- more abstract and theoretical. For academics who have bought into the many very popular academic theories about the open internet and free culture, this is not about the paycheques Jason references. Their paycheques are guaranteed by tenure no matter what happens to real-world creators and consumers in the coming reforms.

But their reputations are certainly at stake... and many of them have gone so far down the free culture rabbit hole that extricating themselves successfully if free culture doesn't, you know, work out in the real world will be a pretty difficult and potentially embarrassing task. I suppose it doesn't surprise me that one such academic would curse me out privately because I refuse to play theoretical ball with my future.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible there are some real-world, non-theoretical pressures involved on the academic side. This article about the appearance of conflict of interest at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society is being widely referenced today:

http://bit.ly/boNNqU

John said...

Here's that link as an actual link:

http://bit.ly/boNNqU

A True Libertarian said...

Free Culture eh?

Why do you attack creators who choose to share? Is that not their choice?

Are people who license their works with Creative Commons licenses hurting you?

Last time I checked, copyright enabled the existence of licenses like the creative commons licenses and opensource licenses. It allowed a creator to choose what happens to their work in the future and allowed them to grant users/consumers/creators of the rights that they enjoy.

John said...

Libertarian-dude (I responded to you on the wrong thread - misread my e-mail - here's what I said)

- who's attacking what now? I share my work for free every day. Welcome to my blog.

Do you not find it interesting that quiet "free culture" money is making its way to very influential legal theorists? If the world goes sharesies, who am I to hold back that tide? But I reserve the right to wonder if there wasn't a better way to do it that didn't involve billions concentrated in half a dozen wallets, while YouTube stuntsters head back to their McJobs.

and now more... my stance on copyright is all about creator choice, and that includes the choice to give work away for free if the creator so chooses. That said, I do want to make sure we have a legal framework in place to protect valuable intellectual proerty for those who freely choose NOT to give their work away. To me, that is both fair and balanced.