In the Shadows: Censors of the New Media

Actually, it was much in the character of a classic holiday romance. And sooner or later, reality was bound to catch up. But for a decade or so, multinational companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, have managed to come across to the public, not as corporate giants, but as grass root movements, driven by visions and ideals, not money.

These companies had the clout and sex appeal to pull it off; youthful, high tech, smart tech and with claims of being inherently nicer than the average white collar corporate crew. The major movers in the social media, computer and search engine business, have often been lead by what seems to be idealistic do-gooders in sneakers and T-shirt – generously offering sweeping claims like Googles corporate phrase ”Don´t be evil”. Generally the internet giants – bar perhaps the old giant Microsoft – still retain their image of being attractively fresh and modern.

But during the last years an ever more fierce fight for market shares, ad views and broad customer bases has had an impact on new media business practices. The net giants have come to rely less on lofty visions, and more on construction of hard core business models. This shift of focus and fuel from enthusiasm to hard currency has also made the big movers a lot more eager to control the use and results of their algorithms: what search results to yield, what Facebook posts to publish and what media products to sell and prohibit.

After all, there are several good reasons to do so. Any corporation who want a healthy customer base and a solid reputation would do its utmost not to act as a haven or outlet for nazi, pedophilic, racist, pornographic, or terrorist content. Hence, these giants have developed and refined ”community standards” and filters in order to stem unwarranted content, which, unfortunately, often also washes out the type of slightly sordid content that makes the net such an unpredictable and exciting place in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, this moral clean-up has also turned out to be a delicate venture. The efforts of discrete cleansing has resulted in random, arbitrary omissions of cultural expressions, censorship of innocent family photographs and erratic handling of politically sensitive topics.

The list of conflicts on private censorship has grown. Many have ridiculed Facebooks prevention of photographs of breast feeding women, erased because female nipples are regarded as offensive and pornographic. Others have fumed over the Google decision to let the Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf in Google Maps now go by its latter name, to the anger of Iran’s Arabic neighbour states. The internet giants themselves, have rarely engaged in any open discussions on these issues. Why should they? Whatever the outcome, any clarification of their corporate standpoints could mean bad business and conversion of groups of potential customers to staunch enemies. And these could well turn out to be not only individuals and groups, but entire nations. Case in point: Denmark. This Scandinavian country praises brutally free speech, however provocative and insensitive it may be, and also prides itself of being a country where nudity and public tongue-in-cheek expressions of sex are held in high regard. During the last years Danish newspapers and book publishers alike have clashed with the internet giants. The tabloid Ekstrabladet, was banned from Ipad-distribution 2010 because its topless page 9-girl did not appeal to the computer-maker-gone-media-distributor Apple’s non-nudity standards. And in 2013 the Danish book Hippie 1 & 2, a seventies esthetic nostalgia tour containing nude pictures, was barred from Apple distribution. When the author Peter Övig protested against this on his Facebook-page, the social media provider promptly removed the images, on the grounds of their inappropriate nature.

This seems to have galvanized the Danish society against the internet giants, and Politiken, Denmark’s major liberal newspaper, has slammed the actions:

“Just like Google and Facebook, Apple censors its net universe in accordance with the moral codes of the American right wing movement, but is reluctant to discuss its censorship openly,” writes Politiken, also claiming that as the new internet media giants while turning into dominating and necessary tools in Europe, must learn to comply with the general civil liberties and rights of this continent.

The upshot of such skirmishes, is that the internet giants have plunged into what must be regarded as a deep identity crises. For what kind of companies are they at heart? Publishing companies that choose what to air and what to shelf? Or mere distribution channels, like telephone companies, with no responsibility for the content of the talks being transported through their wireless nodes?

Google has for several years officially veered from any publishing responsibility. However at the same time making numerous efforts to stem the tide of filth, hatred and conflict in their channels. Google has also, through Youtube, just like the global digital shop Amazon started to produce its own content. In the long run, such ambitions will make it impossible to avoid discussions on publishing ethics with claims of just being distributors.

With the profound disruption currently sweeping the media world, the media giants’ decision to stay in the shadows to avoid making enemies is unwise and unsustainable. Apple has tried to uphold its image as the provider of a human computer environment, Google wants to be the hub of digital creativity and ”not evil”, whilst the Facebook community policy mostly prohibits several types of offensive behaviour. In the long run, the giants – as any digital outlet with claims of harbouring a community – must learn to not only police others behaviour, but also to responsibly step forward, discuss and reevaluate their own.

Paul Frigyes
Journalist, covering issues on new and traditional media 

Further reading