Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Live Journal Attacked by Inocents (?)

A massive web 2.0-type censorship farrago has (yet again) engulfed Live Journal, probably the social blogging and networking site most popular with "fandom" - which includes the loose and vast collection of communities where people write slash fiction about under-age characters (as in Harry Potter and his cronies, for example.)

A rather shady outfit called Warriors for Innocence ("hunting pedophiles where they fester") appear to have either cajoled or threatened Live Journal (or its corporate owners, Six Apart) into taking down and/or deleting entries on a number of journals and communities whose "interests" keywords included terms like rape, teen, child and incest. In response , accusations are being made that some of these communities were for people who simply liked writing fan fiction and had absolutely no intention of encouraging or participating in sex with minors in "real life"; while other communities were actually doing positive good in that they were there to support incest survivors.

The usual web 2.0 battleground has now been thoroughly drawn up, with various calls for class actions for breach of contract against LJ, libel suits against WFI, claims WFI are actually an anti-LGBT group, and calls for symbolic one-day deletion of journals and user migration to other sites like GreatestJournal (which uses the same software as LJ and has been an alternative home in previous episodes of disenchantment with LJ, such as when default user icons showing breatfeeding and naked nipples (!) were banned).

The law as to LJ's possible liability seems at first clear, but has the odd wrinkle. First, no one seems very convinced that writing pedophilic literature (as opposed to taking, making, selling or distributing pictures of under age sex) is in fact any sort of criminal offence in any US state. Secondly, it is even less clear if publishing or facilitating the publication of such is a crime ("inducing pedophilia" anyone?). Thirdly, even if one assumes it is, would LJ be in any way criminally liable or would they be protected from liability? At first blush, this seems exactly the kind of situation the safe harbor of CDA was designed for. LJ , under the CDA, s 230 (c), as a service provider, should not be liable in respect of third party content.

However as every half awake blawger knows, the impact of s 230(c) on Web 2.0, user generated content sites has become steadily more blurry. As recently reported here, the social site was recently found liable by the Sixth Circuit for, in effect, publishing room listings placed by third parties which were in breach of anti-discrimination renting laws. did not benefit from s 230 (c) because by providing a rigid template for entry of text, they had effectively become content providers, not just content platform provider.

It seems unlikely this would apply to LJ where almost all text is provided free form. On the other had, LJ does supply a "template" for journallers and communities to list their "interests" which are then used in searches. And it is these "interests" which are at the heart of LJ's current attempts at censorship. Could they have thought that left them at risk?

A rather more likely rumour is that LJ at first held firm, confident they were protected by the CDA, but panicked when WFI began going round their advertisers suggesting that LJ was not a nice place to hang out. This seems to have lead to a rather panicky surge of deletions of communities and journals. A more helpful approach would probably have been to have identified, before deletion or suspension, which communities were at least devoted to incest survivor support, and spared them the trouble of protest. Much of the furore also seems to surround accusations that LJ unilaterally changed its Terms of Service - yet it is completely clear that they reserved the right (sensibly) to do this at any time (clause 13, Revisions, of ToS).
Sparing "Fan" sites also seems a rather more difficult call: as Warren Ellis, the comics writer put it, "The outcome .. has been pure comedy, with comments that read very much like “I love spending all day reading about forced underage incestuous sex with squirrel fisting on top, but of course I’m not interested in that in real life — that’d make me a pervert!

Some "fan" writers have declared volubly that there is a vast difference between those who like to write fantasies of underage sex and those who'd ever wish to take part in them. PanGloss finds this a rather difficult call to expect a court, let alone a bunch of technohippies to make: surely every paedophile writer in the world would simply declare that oh no, they are merely a rampant Harry Potter slash fan?

Pangloss herself finds the degree of fan hysteria round this type of event a bit hard to stomach. LJ is a private site. It is not a state nor a common carrier nor a "public broadcaster" with positive obligations as to content, like the BBC in the UK. It is basically a business, one which rather oddly and sweetly does not seem to try to make maximum profits when it could (charge everyone, or show everyone ads.) The overwhelming majority of people using LJ still get their accounts and the extremely sophisticated functionality for free (and without advertising - ads are only given on consent, in return for which the user gets extra functionality, like being able to set up polls or have more user icons).

Yet in return for zero consideration, LJ seems to be expected by its clientele to take on a high dgree of risk in an uncertain area of law and to resist censorship at all costs. Yet in principle the situation is exactly as if Walmart had decided not to stock (say) Hello Kitty vibrators. Whether they are legal or not, it's Wallmart's store and Walmart's call. And if Walmart think those vibrators are a bit dodgy, either legally or in terms of alienating or annoying certain customers, then so be it. If they were stocking stuff they thought might or might not be legal, there isn't a lawyer in the world who wouldn't advise them to dump that stuff; and that's WALMART - who have millions of dollars and lawyers to fight prosecutions or civil suits.

An LJ or other web 2.0 site has the right to protect itself against the risk of being sued or prosecuted out of existence for taking on risk in an uncertain legal area. Would you rather have a world with LJ in it, albeit mildly policing the most extreme and likely to be dodgy of its boundaries, or a world with no LJ? Taking normal business steps to reduce legal risk is not the same as going over to the forces of censorship, fascism, illiberality and darkness.

It is interesting that many LJ users seem to feel LJ has a moral (not legal) duty to defend free speech over and above that of a normal business. PanGloss is not sure why. Isn't it good enough that they provide a global speech platform for free, and make efforts, it seems, not to "censor" (ie reduce legal risk) until someone with an agenda,like WFI, makes waves too big to ignore? In some ways , the web 2.0 social sites seem to have inherited the mantle of comforting and morally upright parent which we no longer expect of conventional nation states (?).

See also: Boing Boing

Useful links from LJ

Sample LJ Abuse team Letter


Unknown said...

As one of the "outraged fans" on LJ, I do feel the need to comment. While it's true that there is a lot of unsophisticated ranting going on right now, there are many members of the LJ fandom community who are attempting to make reasoned arguments against the actions that were taken. People are angry because a small "organization" - which seems to be quite extremist, made up of only a few individuals, associated with radical Christian "militia"-type groups, and not associated officially with any law enforcement agency - has slapped the label of "paedophile" on a lot of people who are not paedophiles, and who abhor such behavior. It's insulting. And to further the insult, LiveJournal deleted long-term users' accounts based on nothing more than the word of this shady "watchdog" group, apparently because they were worried about the advertising dollars. Users feel betrayed. This doesn't even take into account that many users have paid or even permanent accounts - if LJ arbitrarily deletes their journals based on their Interests list rather than the content of their journal (as they have done in these cases), should they expect a refund?
Several people have made suggestions; one was to remove the Interests list entirely, or the option to search by Interest. There are many people trying to be reasonable about the situation. We're not calling for LJ to open themselves to lawsuits; in fact, we're trying to avoid that. We're trying to come to a solution, but we're upset because no one from LJ or SixApart has made a statement. We've been asking for a statement for most of the day, and have consistently been ignored or stalled ("we're working on it", "it'll be done in another hour", etc).

I just think it's important to get some of our side out there. We're not all writing about little kids, which seems to be implied in a lot of the stuff being written off-Lj about the situation. A lot of people from a lot of fandoms are together on this, because we're worried about what comes next. If an anti-gay group threatens LJ's advertisers, will they suddenly ban all homosexual/slash/yaoi-themed journals and communities? And further, we're concerned about the double standard that's been applied. There are communities (which are still active on LJ) that actively promote anorexia! Yet pornish_pixies, a locked, moderated community that was careful to keep its membership adult-only, was deleted without notice, taking years of its members' hard work and imagination with it.

We just want these concerns addressed. Sorry for hijacking the comments like this, but the more the word gets out, the more we hope to force SixApart and LiveJournal to communicate with us.

Anonymous said...

Personally I wasn't upset that LJ did what it did - you brought up very valid points as to why - but I do think their follow up responses have been lacking.

I'm also irritated that anyone would think vigilante style groups such as these Warriors people do any good. People who are honestly concerned with children's welfare would have quietly tipped law enforcement - not given all the actual predators a huge 'head's up!' that is only going to make it that much harder to track them after they've gone 'under the radar' so to speak. I say this as someone who has actually worked with law enforcement on this issue.

Anonymous said...

I'm not upset that LJ deleted the actual paedophile communities (there were some) but it's actually not that difficult to tell the difference between a paedophile and a rampant HP/Supernatural/Heroes slash fan. Slash fen don't have real child pr0n, involving real children, on their hard drives. We don't molest children. Why in the world should this even come up outside of an investigation of an actual crime?

I lost two RPG journals. I always went to look who friended my RPG journals so I've run into a few paedos who found those journals using the interests search and they don't write stories about Sam and Dean or Harry and Draco, they write about kids who live on their street or the sick things they did when they were younger.

I had huge disclaimers on the journals that were lost saying that not only were they fictional, they were the villains in a role playing game. There wasn't any porn in the journals because the game is a story line--one of them was stalking a younger character, but he was going to get caught and done in/punished. The game doesn't allow descriptions of nonconsensual sex, nor would we want it to! If the person who deleted my journal had spent five minutes looking at it they would have been able to tell that it didn't belong to a real paedophile.

These people who are behind this have anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-gay slurs and confederate flags on their personal websites! It's ridiculous. I'm very unhappy, especially as I've tried to get actual paedo/abuse type journals investigated in the past to no avail.

Anonymous said...

The whole thing is a terrible knee-jerk reaction to censorship under guise of protecting thier interests. I don't doubt they were attempting to minimize risk. They should just make everyone verify they are adults while they are at it-- and submit all posts to moderation. Ah, but then you have to pay the moderators, so it becomes a pay site...

The previous comments here are correct-- you didn't open the door for other self-righteous groups to get thier way, you blew the door up and a good portion of the wall it was connected to.

People are less outraged by the mentality of "its not going my way, so I wah wah"-- and moreso that they have a comfort and a history with Livejournal that has been compromised. They knew that they could freely express themselves and it was OK. Now it is not. If you like gothic lolita fashion in Japan you could be an OMG-Pedo! If you wrote a fanfic involving someone in Highschool having any sexual thoughts or acts (because those clearly never occur), you too could be a pedo. In fact, you don't even need to include them-- you need only hint at it enough in a general interest section for it to be classified in the same category as an incestious rape smut story.

But why stop at the fact it is a fanfic that poses no threat to anybody? The fanfic could bring up the exploration or declaration of being a homosexual-- and suddenly when the next wave of elitists, your journal is at risk. Your place of solice and expression has become no less guarded or validated than if you put it in a newsletter that went to your Home Owners Association and it's members.

Spin it however you like. LJ was covertly attacked by an oppressive regime under the clause of 'protection' for the children of the world. Aww. LJ, in turn, attacks the journals of it's clients under the clause of 'protection' for thier own business survival. Boo. What does the user do? They attack back-- and all they can do is petition it back to the provider-- who will bend to whichever pressure is greater. Sorry folks, we are just not as important as this perceived threat. We have to take the years of history with them and move on-- or provide a convincing arguement where they have already shown considerable weakness to thier opponent.

Anonymous said...

Dave - where do you get the idea that we're not as important as the "perceived threat"? The owners of LJ have apologized, and restored the journals and communities which were unjustly deleted. I would say that there's a strong case to be made in favor of the opposite opinion - 32,000 angry users seem to be more important than outside pressures (at least in this case). And the owners have stated that they are reviewing their policies in order to make sure that there are clear guidelines to what will and will not be considered 'harmful', so that this situation will hopefully never happen again. I, for one, am satisfied (though not unwilling to revolt again, should something similar occur again).