Modern Gatekeepers to Speech: Careful with the Keys!

You just need to hear the beginning of some sentences to know things aren't going to end happily:

"Some of my best friends are ... "

"I can take a joke as much as the next man ... "

"Is it just me, or ... "

Then there's this one:

"I believe in the freedom of speech, but ... "

You know what's going to happen next. They're going to reveal exactly how much they don't believe in the freedom of speech. "I believe that people should be allowed to say things that don't offend me" is how it usually boils down.

What does this have to do with managed-services/hosting site? Quite a bit. You see, much speech these days gets transmitted across the Internet, and people like us provide the platforms that allow this transmission.So, it may not surprise you to learn (or perhaps it may) that, when someone uses our platform to say something that someone else doesn't like, then the offendee often gets in touch with us directly to complain about the offender. Invariably, they'll word their complaint one of three ways:

1) They'll simply demand that we stop hosting the person or organisation who's offended them, as if the right not to be offended is now the paramount requirement of our age.

2) They'll suggest that the person has committed libel or some related offence, with scant evidence and no legal backup.

3) They'll suggest that the person has somehow breached some sort of copyright or related "intellectual property", and so must be shut down and shut up. This is an increasingly common way to try to gag people, thanks to horrible legislation like the DMCA in the US and the EUCD here.

Occasionally the complaint will be backed up with hints at legal recourse or illegal denial-of-service attack. As it happens, with many hosting companies, any of these tactics is all it takes to get someone's services pulled. The hosting company can't be bothered to investigate the full facts, and it's simpler to be judge, jury and executioner than to demand due process. Benefit of the doubt? Not so much.

This is unfortunate. After all, we supposedly live within the rule of law, and we also live in a society that's supposed to protect robust heterogeneous discourse. Surely turning up with pitch-forks isn't the way to answer back? Instead, why not just.. answer back. With words! And when someone does turn up with their pitchforks, is simply retreating not giving in to mob justice?

However deplorable it was, there used to be a reason why people felt eventually driven to pitch-forks. When only a few privileged media held all the cards, and were the gate-keepers of opinion and public discourse, the pitch-forks were an understandable, if unfortunate, response. With the Internet, the playing-field is levelled, dramatically. A silly newspaper article or an unsavoury opinion can be countered with counterblasts in seconds, which can be heard and seen with at least the same vehemence as the original article that sparked it off. If someone offends, you set up your own blog posting. You start a twitter campaign. You enter into conversation. You neutralise that which offends. That's the way freedom of expression is supposed to work. Or perhaps you simply realise that being offended is the price you pay for living in a free society, and go and kick a tree. So long as you don't offend any passing arborphile.

Sadly, too many people cling to the old, "appeal to the authoritarian" approach as first instinct. It's like we revert to our childhood and go running to daddy, and ask him to "make the nasty boy go away". Organisations like ours are caught in the middle of this infantile appeal. Of course, should a court of law demand that we remove something, we do so. We respect the rule of law. But what if a large corporation or a disgruntled malcontent makes threats to us directly, with little basis, in the hope they'll scare us into silencing one of our customers? We try not to be cowed. We have rescued quite a number of sites from the timorous grasp of those who have timidly given in to such threats, and we're proud of that; but it worries us that too often, we seem to be a lone voice sticking up for this sort of principle. Maybe it's time that hosting companies agreed to give their clients the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we need to agree to a kind of bill of rights, where we guarantee that we will not act tyrannously and arbitrarily kick our clients off at the first whiff of trouble. Of course, for this to be effective, we'll need laws that give us the benefit of the doubt in such circumstances too, and a legal system that can operate quickly and efficiently if it deems that something is genuinely illegal without punishing us for acting in good faith in the meantime. This might seem somewhat grandiose - after all, hosting is a private commercial venture; however, the Internet has become such an important platform of cultural and political expression that we gatekeepers are in a privileged position beyond what we might often realise. Perhaps as an industry we need to codify how we should live up to the  responsibilities behind this privilege.