A Different Aspect of the Internet-and-Freedom Story

Previous discussions here and here. When you ask Chinese officials why they feel compelled to control the Internet, the first thing you hear back is: It's not just China. No country believes in absolute free speech, on the internet or anywhere else. Many European countries censor neo-Nazi material. The U.S. and many other countries arrest people for child porn -- and until recently in the US, for animal-cruelty videos too. Australia's new policy on "filtering" dangerous sites is particularly ambitious, or aggressive, depending on your taste.

Naturally, Chinese officials well familiar with the outside world are the only ones who will make the argument this way. (Others just say: Stop meddling in the internal affairs of today's strong China!) But those sophisticates would conclude their case by saying: Each society defines what kind of material it deems harmful to its larger interests. We in China don't tell the Germans how to talk about neo-Nazis, and they should not tell us how to talk about Tibet.

[Update: courtesy of reader EG, this link to a report about the Chinese government's latest white-paper rationale for its internet censorship. Conveniently, it conforms to the summary I offer above! Eg:

Laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honour and interests.]

The long message below and after the jump is from film director Tony Comstock, of Comstock Films and the Intent to Arouse site. His argument is about not governmental controls but what he sees as unaccountable private controls on expression by Internet companies, above all Google. He contends that, out of concern about being seen as pornography-mongers, they end up suppressing legitimate discussion of "sexuality, especially sexual dissent," which is his field of work. 

These are judgment calls that can never be made perfectly. It's hard to look at today's Internet and feel that it's short on sexually explicit material. But Comstock's case is worth considering, because of (a) his distinction between the "standard" porno that abounds online and what he presents as expressive speech worthy of notice and protection, and especially (b) his emphasis on the power of private as opposed to governmental info-czars. He begins by contrasting the "autofill" function that plays such a role in Google -- an algorithm that guesses what you're trying to find and gives you helpful hints -- and the way it handles sexually freighted topics, including his company's name, versus typing in a politically controversial term like "stormfront," for which autofill provides suggestions of a white-supremacist organization you could be looking for. (Not all content below intended for children, fyi.)

I hope you would notice that [comstock films] and [tony comstock] do not autofill. Compare that to typing in [stormfront], which Google provides additional help in finding through autofill.

If a search string is in Google's autofill database, it engages a whole series of Google helper features: it ensures the name is spelled correctly, suggests potentially relevant variations, and in its own subtle way adds Google's imprimatur to the search. Of course it's a small nudge one way or another, but these sorts of nudges add up.

Conversely, the sites that do not autofill (whether or not SafeSearch is on) all seem to suffer from prejudicial treatment by Google's algorithm. In the course of my work, I've discovered various other facets of how Google's search algorithms treat sexuality, especially sexual dissent: two-word vs. three-word search returns, [penis] vs [clitoris] under Google's SafeSearch, and others. From my own little corner of the internet I've watched the disintermediated internet give way to an internet with powerful gatekeepers who use rather unsubtle tools to sift information, most especially alternative or dissenting views on sexuality.
In 2009, Seth Finkelstein wrote about the various search anomalies around sex for The Guardian, citing some of my research and writing:

The result is that the formerly disintermediated, gatekeeper-less internet that seemed to offer so much promise for disseminating our particular view on sexuality has become all but useless to Comstock Films in the simple "nuts and bolts" work of marketing our films, making money, and being able to continue to put our point of view in the pubic discourse. Before their big overhauls, Google search used to bring us visitors who spent a lot of time on the site, read lots of pages on the blog, and who bought DVDs.

Now, other than [comstock films] and [tony comstock] our search-driven visitors arrive mostly on odd search strings and seem to be (based on page count and time on site) mostly not finding what they're looking for. We are caught in the endless battle between Google's efforts to keep their search results "clean", and spammers' efforts to game the system.

These days we sell our films the old fashioned way; through Amazon and Blockbuster and other retailers. We pay the gatekeepers their cut, and value their role in helping us break through the clutter. (Indeed, one of the primary reasons I am looking to shift my work to an academic environment is that I see the world moving increasingly towards parsing images and ideas mechanically, and if I can, I want to carve out a place for myself where images and ideas are still parsed by actual human beings.)

I used to have a fairly self-righteous take on all of this, partly because of where my bread is buttered, but also because, like a lot of other people, I was pretty swept up in the "utopian promise" the early days of internet seemed to offer.

But more and more I've let go of the idea of prudery or sex-negativity or censorship on Google's part and come to see this through a different lens, drawing on the work of Tom Atzet, former ecologist for the Siskiyou National Forest, and his application of the "climax ecology" theory.

I think analogies between biological phenomena and sociological phenomena are full of pitfalls, but I have found the climax ecology concept is a useful framework for examining the underlying conditions that give rise to certain creative outcomes; especially Atzet's emphasis on distinguishing clearing events, which radically, but temporarily effect the flora, but do not effect the underlying ecology, and events so sweeping in their scope they effect the underlying ecology and destroy and/or create new niches.

It's through that lens that I see the 1934 case "US v Ulysses" as creating a new niche for the exploration of sexuality in art, but see the post-Hays Code era (roughly 1968-1975) and the early days of the internet as mere clearing events. It's from Justice Woolsey's decision in that case that I took the title for my research project that I now hope to pursue in a more
formal academic environment: US vs. Ulysses: The origin of "intent to arouse" as legal doctrine.

I was also struck by Professor Wu's [Timothy Wu, of Columbia Law School, in this original post] comments about utopian hopes giving way to disappointment and even distopias. Again, borrowing from Atzet, even if a new technology sweeps in like wildfire, if the technology does not actually change the underlying social ecology, the dominant species will reassert themselves. That would also seem to be contained in your opening comments, "Just a few years ago the answer to the dissenter/dictator question would have seemed so obvious we didn't think it was a question worth asking." In the early days of the internet it seemed self-evident that it was a change to the underlying social ecology that would shift power from the strong to the weak, but now that doesn't seem so certain, does it?...

And just as I see similarities between the "clearing event" of the post-Code era and early internet, I see connections between Hollywood's rationalizing their industry in the late 20s/early 30s and Google's rationalization of their search product; and I think simply calling it self-censorship misses important aspects of the underlying "ecology" of commerce.

Both film and the internet swept in like wildfire, but the underlying ecology of commerce in sexually explicit images was not changed by either technology, and within a few short years, utopian visions of what would be possible gave way to the form reverting to what film studies people call "actualities"; filmed depictions of events bearing little if any
resemblance to any other form of cinema. Here's a 2009 article from the New York Times with Steve Hirsch of Vivid Video, one-time top studio for "feature-style" adult films declaring the future lies in 3-5 minute, contextless clips, which more or less brings explicit depictions of sexuality back to the loops and smokers of the Hays Code era, any utopianist thoughts about sexuality and cinema the dismantling of the Hays Code might have inspired long since forgotten: Lights, Camera, Lots of Action. Forget the Script.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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