TUCoPS :: Truly Miscellaneous :: prodhor2.txt

Still MORE horrors on Prodigy


By Mike Godwin/EFF

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 censors.

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 treatment.

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 forum.

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 censored.

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 business.

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