TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: prodigy.txt

Prodigy Censorship

By Mike Godwin

On some days, Prodigy representatives tell us they're running "the Disney
Channel of online services." On other days the service is touted as a
forum for "the free expression of ideas." But management has missed the
conflict between these two missions. And it is just this unperceived
conflict that has led the B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League to launch
a protest against the online service..

On one level, the controversy stems from Prodigy's decision to censor
messages responding to claims that, among other things, the Holocaust
never took place. These messages--which included such statements as
"Hitler had some valid points" and that "wherever Jews exercise influence
and power, misery, warfare and economic exploitation ... follow"--were the
sort likely to stir up indignant responses among Jews and non-Jews alike.
But some Prodigy members have complained to the ADL that when they tried
to respond to both the overt content of these messages and their implicit
anti-Semitism, their responses were rejected by Prodigy's staff of

The rationale for the censorship? Prodigy has a policy of barring messages
directed at other members, but allows messages that condemn a group. The
result of this policy, mechanically applied, is that one member can post a
message saying that "pogroms, 'persecutions,' and the mythical holocaust"
are things that Jews "so very richly deserve" (this was an actual
message). But another member might be barred from posting some like
"Member A's comments are viciously anti-Semitic." It is no wonder that the
Anti-Defamation League is upset at what looks very much like unequal

But the problem exposed by this controversy is broader than simply a badly
crafted policy. The problem is that Prodigy, while insisting on its Disney
Channel metaphor, also gives lip service to the notion of a public forum.
Henry Heilbrunn, a senior vice president of Prodigy, refers in the Wall
Street Journal to the service's "policy of free expression," while Bruce
Thurlby, Prodigy's manager of editorial business and operations, invokes
in a letter to ADL "the right of individuals to express opinions that are
contrary to personal standards or individual beliefs."

Yet it is impossible for any free-expression policy to explain both the
allowing of those anti-Semitic postings and the barring of responses to
those postings from outraged and offended members. Historically, this
country has embraced the principle that best cure for offensive or
disturbing speech is more speech. No regime of censorship--even of the
most neutral and well-meaning kind--can avoid the kind of result that
appears in this case: some people get to speak while others get no chance
to reply. So long as a board of censors is in place, Prodigy is no public

Thus, the service is left in a double bind. If Prodigy really means to be
taken as a computer-network version of "the Disney Channel"--with all the
content control that this metaphor implies--then it's taking
responsibility for (and, to some members, even seeming to endorse) the
anti-Semitic messages that were posted. On the other hand, if Prodigy
really regards itself as a forum for free expression, it has no business
refusing to allow members to respond to what they saw as lies,
distortions, and hate. A true free-speech forum would allow not only the
original messages but also the responses to them.

So, what's the fix for Prodigy? The answer may lie in replacing the
service's censors with a system of "conference hosts" of the sort one sees
on CompuServe or on the WELL. As WELL manager Cliff Figallo conceives of
his service, the management is like an apartment manager who normally
allows tenants to do what they want, but who steps in if they do something
outrageously disruptive. Hosts on the WELL normally steer discussions
rather than censoring them, and merely offensive speech is almost never

But even if Prodigy doesn't adopt a "conference host" system, it
ultimately will satisfy its members better if it does allow a true forum
for free expression. And the service may be moving in that direction
already: Heilbrunn is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that
Prodigy has been loosening its content restrictions over the past month.
Good news, but not good enough--merely easing some content restrictions is
likely to be no more successful at solving Prodigy's problems than
Gorbachev's easing market restrictions was at solving the Soviet Union's
problems. The best solution is to allow what Oliver Wendell Holmes called
"the marketplace of ideas" to flourish--to get out of the censorship

Rita Marie Rouvalis              rita@eff.org 
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Cambridge, MA 02141 617-864-0665 |  women-not-to-be-messed-with@eff.org

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