Friday, September 10, 2010

How does Rackspace define hate speech? And should we be worried?

There are times when we praise companies for doing cool things. But if we take a moment to think about them, we may want to withhold our praise.

I think it's fair to say that as of today, not a lot of people like Terry Jones. Sure, he was great when he played the organ nude on old Monty Python TV clips, but by the time he became a pastor in Gainesville, Florida and decided to burn the Koran, most people decided that he was not so great.

Including Rackspace, their (now former) web site host.

An Internet hosting company based in San Antonio is no longer supporting the website for the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida....

Rackspace spokesman Dan Goodgame says the company acted on a complaint that the church was publishing hate speech on its site.

Read the rest here, including Jones' complaint that his First Amendment rights were being violated. Unfortunately, Jones is misreading the First Amendment, which applies to the government, not private companies. Rackspace is not obligated to host sites that say Islam is of the devil, any more than the Dove World Outreach Center is obligated to publish tracts saying that the Bible kills people.

However, there's another issue here. While any private company is free, within some limits, to set any "terms of use" policy, often those terms of use policies are extraordinarily broad and vague. While it's hard to come up with a precise definition of a term such as "hate speech," it's very easy to categorize just about anything as "hate speech" if you feel like it. As an example, take a look at Rackspace's Acceptable Use Policy (although this issue is NOT confined to Rackspace):

Offensive Content

You may not publish, transmit or store on or via Rackspace's network and equipment any content or links to any content that Rackspace reasonably believes:

* Constitutes, depicts, fosters, promotes or relates in any manner to child pornography, bestiality, or non-consensual sex acts;
* is excessively violent, incites violence, threatens violence, or contains harassing content or hate speech;
* is unfair or deceptive under the consumer protection laws of any jurisdiction, including chain letters and pyramid schemes;
* is defamatory or violates a person's privacy;
* creates a risk to a person's safety or health, creates a risk to public safety or health, compromises national security, or interferes with a investigation by law enforcement;
* improperly exposes trade secrets or other confidential or proprietary information of another person;
* is intended to assist others in defeating technical copyright protections;
* infringes on another person's copyright, trade or service mark, patent, or other property right;
* promotes illegal drugs, violates export control laws, relates to illegal gambling, or illegal arms trafficking;
* is otherwise illegal or solicits conduct that is illegal under laws applicable to you or to Rackspace; or
* is otherwise malicious, fraudulent, or may result in retaliation against Rackspace by offended viewers or recipients, or is intended to harass or threaten.

Content "published or transmitted" via Rackspace's network or equipment includes Web content, email, bulletin board postings, chat, tweets, and any other type of posting or transmission that relies on the Internet.

For the moment, assume a U.S.-based content provider. (Things can get really sticky if you go overseas, as everyone knows.) While some of the provisions are fairly clear, some are murky. Presumably a case can be made that Terry Jones' actions incited violence or included hate speech. But if Terry Jones incited violence, can't an equal claim be made that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. incited violence? Are paparazzi permanently banned from Rackspace because they violate someone's privacy? Are fast food outlets banned from Rackspace because they create a risk to a person's health? Is NORML banned from Rackspace because they support illegal drugs?

If you are going to apply a ban on Terry Jones, then isn't Rackspace morally, if not legally, obligated to deny services to all others who violate its Acceptable Use Policy?

Again, this is not exclusive to Rackspace. Most if not all service providers have similarly vague policies that allow the service to pull the plug on content providers. See Nicole Ferraro's comments on Facebook and Terry Jones; inasmuch as her post is entitled "Facebook: Hoster of Hatred, Again," I think we know where she stands on the issue.

So, what is the solution?
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