A couple of weeks so ago, Jason Goldberg, founder and CEO of the soon-to-be-launched website, fabulis.com, woke to a shocking situation: Citibank had blocked his corporate bank account. As Goldberg posted on his blog, the bank’s action was done without prior notice and was imposed because of the site’s apparent “objectionable content.” And the content? Fabulis is to be a social networking and lifestyle service targeted to gay men.
A few days later, and after much indignant buzz on the web about the bank’s arbitrary action, Goldberg got a call from Citibank’s Bill Brown. According to Goldberg, “Bill runs all the new york branches. Bill seems like a good and smart guy. He is sincerely apologetic that an individual made a bad judgment call about our site.” Fabulis’ account was reinstated.
In all likelihood the blocking of Fabulis’ account was the result of a “bad judgment call.” As Goldberg reports, “Bill [Brown] will use this as an education and training opportunity.” One can only wonder what corporate “education and training” means at Citibank. The problem, sadly, seems more systemic: How is it that an individual bank employee (or small group) can block an account? What criteria and procedures does the bank use to determine “objectionable content”? These issues seem not to have been discussed between Goldberg and Brown.
Whether Citibank’s action was due to the action of a single employee or a decision by its top management, it speaks to the apparent increase in the censorship of online content now being imposed by corporate America. The struggle over censorship, over the content Americas can experience, dates from the nation’s founding. In 1711, the Massachusetts Bay Colony introduced regulations prohibiting the “Composing, Writing, Printing, Publishing, of Any Filthy Obscene or Prophane Song, Pamphlet, Libel or Mock-Sermon, in Imitation or in Mimicking of Preaching, or any other part of Divine Worship.”
Today, the battle over censorship, over the limits of acceptable content, is being fought on two fronts. The first is the formal or legal front; it involves the contestation over FCC “decency” standards (e.g., CBS’s fine for the over-the-air broadcast display of Janet Jackson’s nipple) and Court decisions (e.g., U.S. v. librarians over Internet porn).
The second front is more informal, non-legal and involves corporations selectively restricting what they offer the public. It often involves more subtle forms of censorship ranging from corporate identity or branding issues, product “quality” or technical standards, to market control factors and to unstated political or religious values. Both fronts need to be challenged with equal vigor; nevertheless, there appears to be an increase among the latter front, corporate censorship.
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The battle between the Dixie Chicks and the country music establishment is the paradigmatic example of corporate censorship, both its imposition and its undoing. The Chicks appeared at a now-famous London concert in 2003 as the U.S. illegal invasion of Iraq loomed. One of the “chicks,” Natalie Maines, told the anti-war audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Reports of Maines’ statement spread rapidly and the group faced a vicious backlash. It came from not only the pro-war right wing and the media establishment, but the country music industry as well. The Chicks found that radio stations (especially the reactionary Clear Channel network) refused to play their music, retailers refused to carry their albums, their live shows were cancelled and they suffered a plunge in record sales. They also received death threats.
As support for Bush’s imperialist folly eroded, anti-war sentiment became popular, acceptable among the political elite and corporate media. Those who long opposed the war were transformed from traitors to patriots. In 2007, the Dixie Chicks were rehabilitated, receiving five Grammy awards.
More recent examples of corporate censorship are equally political, but in a more arbitrary fashion. The Fabulis experience is illustrative. Clearly, the Citibank decision-maker(s) didn’t know their customer nor who backed his latest venture. Goldberg was a co-founder of Jobster, also started and ran socialmedian.com, which was sold to Xing in 2008. He’s a player in the web-entrepreneur ballgame. His latest venture is backed by the “Washington Post,” Mayfield Fund’s Allen Morgan and Burson-Marsteller’s Don Baer.
The experience of Goldberg’s Fabulis may well be an exception. However, Apple’s actions speak to a different form of censorship. The “New York Times” recently blew the whistle of Apple’s restrictions of applications it will run on its iPhone. Among those blocked are “SlideHer,” a videogame depicting a scantily-clad women, and “Sexy Scratch Off,” a lottery-type game depicting a woman wearing a scratch-off dress and revealing undergarments.
Apple’s iPhone supports an estimated 150,000 “apps” through its App Store and draws the line over what it considers “objectionable content.” Philip Schiller, Apple’s head of worldwide product marketing, argues that developers have been submitting “an increasing number of apps containing very objectionable content.” He added: “It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see.”
What all this huffing-&-puffing fails to acknowledge is that Apple offers the “Sports Illustrated” soft-core porn swimsuit issue. As Schiller acknowledged, “The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format.” At Apple, as at many media companies, corporate interests determine decency standards.
Apple’s blockage of a variety of other “objectionable content” received less media attention. As first reported on the invaluable site, BoingBoing, Apple initially blocked episodes of the South Park cartoon series. South Park announced: “We first announced our iPhone App back in October , after we submitted the Application to Apple for approval. After a couple of attempts to get the application approved, we are sad to say that our app has been rejected.” Apple also banned Infurious Comics’ “Murderdone.” Weirdly contradictory, it is now forgotten that while Apple’s banned the juvenilia app “iBoobs,” it permitted “iJiggles” and “Wobble,” although with “Wobble,” references to “boobs” and “booty” were removed.
Apple’s arbitrary censorship practices involve more than popular entertainment. It initially blocked Project Gutenberg’s “The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana,” the ancient Sanskrit text (without illustrations) on sexual pleasures. Unacknowledged by Apple, the Kama Sutra was already available through other iPhone apps. A similar pattern is evident in its restricted e-publication of David Corney’s novel, “Knife Music.” Apple blocked it because of its apparent excessive use of the word “fuck.”
American First Amendment protections (and restrictions!) cover public media not private media. Thus, Janet Jackson’s exposure of her nipple on the CBS over-the-air broadcast of the Super Bowl was a contestation between the limits of expression and notions of public decency. It involved the FCC and, ultimately, the federal Courts. However, Apple’s iPhone is a proprietary mobile communications platform; its refusal to offer Project Gutenberg’s “The Kama Sutra,” like Clear Channel’s refusal to play the Dixie Chicks, does not involve First Amendment issues but the arbitrary imposition of corporate standards of morality.
Apple is not alone in using its corporate muscle to censor what it determines to be “objectionable content.” Wal-Mart has long prided itself on censoring materials it considered to violate its “family values” policy. Censorship applies to books and music, extending to not only music lyrics but also album cover artwork. But what is “objectionable” is purely arbitrary, as Wal-Mart’s own policies indicate. “Wal-Mart does not display album or song titles that contain profanity,” its online music policy states. “However, Wal-Mart may carry some recordings that some customers might find offensive, indecent or objectionable.” Some?, which ones? and who decides?
Amazon was recently outed for delisting non-pornographic gay literature, including James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar.” After being exposed, Amazon quickly claimed it was a technical error with no anti-gay censorship intended. Curiously, Chronicle Books’ “Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds,” with photos of some 600 nude women, was never affected.
CVS, the nationwide drugstore chain, has found itself at the center of a series of local censorship confrontations. In Milwaukee, it faced community objections over its decision to no longer permit the in-store stocking of the “Shepherd Express,” a local weekly. In New York, it ran into flack at its Chelsea store over the content of two Christian-themed books that called homosexuality a “cancer,” sinful and “detestable” to God. When outraged residents informed the local paper, “Chelsea Now,” and the story was picked up by the “Times,” CVS removed the two books. A CVS spokesman, Michael DeAngelis, stated, “We are committed to building an environment of inclusion and acceptance that values diversity across all areas of our business.”
AT&T has faced repeated charges of arbitrary censorship among a host of corporate misdeeds. In 2007, it faced a firestorm of controversy when the lyrics of Pearl Jam were “accidentally” edited during the webcast of a Lollapalooza concert. Lead singer Eddie Vedder had revised the lyrics of the song “Daughter” to include anti-Bush sentiments and they were bleeped out. In addition, the revised lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (“George Bush, leave this world alone; George Bush find yourself another home.”) mysteriously disappeared from the webcast. AT&T quickly retreated, offering an apology that a programming partner had “accidentally” edited the webcast.
Last year, AT&T took a direct hand in locking access to parts of 4chan.org. 4chan is an anonymous Internet message board community that is known for its irreverence, mischief and lewdness. Specifically, AT&T blocked the img.4chan.org sub-domain used by the /b/ message board. Many web activists initially faulted AT&T for apparent censorship. AT&T claimed the blocking was a response to what is technically known as a DDoS (denial-of-service) attack and service was restored once the attack was thwarted.
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Corporate facilitators are gaining increasing power to determine the appropriateness of media content. Facilitators are the middle-vendors who distribute media communications between the content producer and the (adult) audience or consumer. Such vendors include cable operators, telecommunication companies and retail chains. They are the pipeline between what is said and who gets to hear it.
The matrix of facilitators who control media distribution include AT&T and Amazon, Apple and CVS, Wal-Mart and Citibank. They exert an often-invisible stranglehold over freedom of expression. Once Americans step beyond the formal boundaries of “public” communications, be it by a newspaper, radio or broadcast television, First Amendment protections do not apply.
Corporations are anti-democratic organizations in two respects. They arbitrarily determine the content they choose to distribute, whether they function as a quasi-monopoly (like Wal-Mart) or a public carrier (like Apple). In addition, they formally restrict the rights of their employees to speak their mind.
The Supreme Court recently granted corporations greater First Amendment rights to participate in the electoral process. One can only wonder when the Court will extend similar rights to facilitate free expression through the respective distribution pipelines that these corporations control.
Why does Apple (and not the proverbial “marketplace”) determine the apps it runs? Apple’s iPhone’s use of the public airways in essentially no way different then a broadcast TV channel. Why is it not governed by the same common-carriage requirements? Wal-Mart takes full advantage of the public highway system to get customers to its doors. Why do the public’s freedoms of choice not extend into the store itself?
The deep suspicion of corporate censorship shared by web activists, civil libertarians and the public itself is well taken. To overcome such suspicion, the arbitrary, non-transparent and anti-democratic control that corporation facilitators have over content distribution must stop. If corporations are rewarded with greater influence (if not control) over the political process, they should at least be required to cease all attempts to control what free people can say or hear or see.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at email@example.com.