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.
“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.”
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.