Whose Terms of Service control your access to the increasingly private “public spaces” where you express yourself?
Chris Hall of Literate Perversions recently made a very cogent comment on my post, “My Way or the Highway’s Way.” He was pointing out how much of the limiting of “acceptable use” of public spaces involves a shift from citizen to consumer as the model for the individual. When we think of ourselves as citizens, we are thinking of ourselves as members of a community and as having collective rights, responsibilities and needs that we must act together in order to protect. When we think of ourselves as consumers — or when governments and corporations frame us as consumers — suddenly our rights, responsibilities and needs are framed in individual terms. “I” need something, “I” don’t want to pay for something, “I” am offended and don’t think certain messages should be transmitted. I come first (or my family comes first) and I am not so encouraged to think of myself and my family as part of an extended network of people whose needs all need to be negotiated somehow.
That got me thinking about how much our “public” spaces have been privatized. The New York State Thruway’s rest areas are not really public spaces in the traditional sense. Really they are a collection of private businesses that team up to provide a public service. The mall has become the new town square. And no, I don’t mean “mall” in the sense of “wide avenue or grassy space where people walk, gather and discuss the events of the day.” I mean “neon lit enclosed commercial space where people walk, gather and discuss the issues of the day so long as they don’t offend the owners of the space.”
And then I started thinking about the Internet and got very optimistic and then very depressed. The Internet and the World Wide Web, are incredible tools for creating powerful, decentralized, democratic spaces where free exchange of ideas is managed across nations and continents, not just across towns and neighborhoods. But who controls our access to the Internet so that we can make our spaces on the World Wide Web available to others? It was in answering that question that I got depressed.
For me, the first “who” is Verizon and when I looked at their Terms of Service I was very disappointed. (To spare my regular readers I will not revisit my WordPress.com TOS discussion in this post.) Verizon, the vehicle I use to connect to the internet, not only prohibits my using their service for illegal purposes like, say downloading or distributing child pornography, but also prohibits using their service in a way that is “sexually explicit, or graphic in nature.” They can immediately terminate my service at their sole discretion if I am found to be in violation of their policies. There are things I like about Verizon. For one, many of its workers belong to unions. But I looked at their terms of service and realized that I could be regularly in violation of it and that they could, should they choose, terminate my access to the Internet.
That’s my ISP. But let’s say I find an ISP that won’t consider what I do to be a violation of their Terms of Service. I still need a place to host a web site. Powweb, a hosting company recommended to me by a friend who has used them for years, prohibits material that would commonly be considered indecent, or would appeal to the prurient interest, and would also prevent me from linking to sites that do those things. Open Source Host, another company recommended to me by a friend who has been happy with their service for a long time also prohibits “sex-related links” including sites that “infer sexual content.” Not only could I not post such content myself, but I could not even link to it. And again, the company will be the sole arbiter of what counts as “sex-related.” I did find some hosting services that did not expressly prohibit sexually explicit content. AN Hosting and DreamHost, both recommended by WordPress.org, only prohibited sexual content that was illegal — i.e., child pornography. Another open source host, Laughing Squid, actually took the time to distinguish between “erotic photography” sites and “porn membership” sites, and explained that they don’t host the latter because of traffic issues. But the breadth of the prohibitions made by companies like Verizon, Powweb and OpenSource was startling. And there were others. Yahoo! Hosting prohibits material that “(ii) is threatening, obscene, indecent, defamatory, or that otherwise could adversely affect any individual, group, or entity (collectively, ‘Persons’)” and later excludes material that is vulgar or obscene. BlueHost, a company recommended by WordPress.org prohibits “pornography, nudity, sexual products, programs or services. Escort services are not allowed or other content deemed adult related.” All policies make it clear that the company itself is the “sole arbiter” of what violates its policies. (And of course these sites all separately prohibit expressly illegal behavior.)
Is this insane? No nudity? Nothing that could “adversely affect any individual”? And with these companies being the sole arbiters of what might be harmful, enforcing their policies at their “sole discretion”? How many of us are in regular violation of the terms of service of the major corporations — or small businesses — that control our access to this otherwise democratic world wide web?
I am convinced that, sexually speaking, we are about as schizophrenic as we can be. Yesterday I talked with my sister in Atlanta who told me that when she got up in the morning morning and turned on the television the news was reporting the story of a veterinarian in Japan who had had his arm bitten off by a crocodile (the event happened on April 11th). This was on a mainstream media channel on a large screen television. They showed the crocodile with the man’s arm in its mouth. Before breakfast. This is not going to be disturbing to children? The same channel also showed graphic coverage of the man who jumped from the Empire State Building yesterday. Not disturbing for children? But let a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple escape onto the airwaves again — a nipple being something that lots of children are intimately familiar with and probably have happy memories of — and no doubt we will have another cultural panic about how disturbing that must be for kids. Severed limbs, okay. Healthy bodies, not so much.
Is there a cure for a schizophrenic society? I think there is, and I think we are part of it. We need to be inserting sensible, playful, compassionate, honest, difficult, and open discussions of sexuality (and bodies) into absolutely every cultural venue we can manage.
Of course in order to do that we may need to violate the policies of the companies that control our access to those “public” spaces.
Extra credit: Who controls your access to free expression online? Read the Terms of Service documents for the companies that control your Internet access or hosting. If you find that they are sensible and don’t exclude legal expression, drop a note in the Comments section below. I’d love to compile a list!