AOL’s “Censorship”

by on April 22, 2006 · 12 comments

Declan has a long and interesting argument between Suresh Ramasubramanian, who’s the postmaster for several million email users, and Danny O’Brien, an EFF activist coordinator.

A couple of weeks ago, AOL’s email system briefly blocked any email that had the dearaol.com URL in it. EFF responded by accusing AOL of deliberate censorship:

“This proves the DearAOL.com Coalition’s point entirely: left to their own devices, AOL will always put its own self-interest ahead of the public interest in a free and open Internet,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization working on media reform and Internet policy issues. “AOL wants us to believe they won’t hurt free email when their pay-to-send system is up and running. But if AOL is willing to censor the flow of information now to silence their critics, how could anyone trust that they will preserve the free and open Internet down the road? Their days of saying ‘trust us’ are over–their credibility is zero, zip, nada.”

But as Ramasubramanian persuasively argues, it’s likely this was an honest mistake on AOL’s part: a few AOL users probably got unsolicited emails from DearAOL’s “send this to a friend” feature and flagged them as spam. AOL’s system probably concluded from that that dearaol.com is a spam address and started blocking emails that mention it. AOL fixed the problem within a matter of hours.

Ramasubramanian rightly takes EFF to task for crying censorship without making any attempt to resolve the problem with AOL first. Administering email for tens of millions of people is a difficult job. It’s especially difficult when those users are clamoring to reduce the amount of spam in their inboxes. We can and should criticize AOL when its system screws up, so that consumers are aware of any problems, (personally, I much prefer email servers that leave the spam-filtering to the client side) but it’s not helpful or reasonable to immediately become confrontational about it.

I think this accentuates what makes the DearAOL campaign wrongheaded in the first place. EFF is rightly vigilant about censorship by the government because we only have one government and it has immense power. We can’t afford to give the government the benefit of the doubt because if the government abuses its power it has the potential to shut down the expression of views it disapproves of. Once we give up a freedom to the government, we may never get it back.

The AOL situation is very different. There are plenty of ways to communicate outside of AOL’s email service, so it’s unlikely that AOL would have much success preventing the discussion of ideas it doesn’t like. Moreover, unlike the government, AOL has competitors. If it begins doing obnoxious things with its email, its customers can switch to alternative ISPs. Moreover, many consumers want AOL to filter their email in order to prevent spam and viruses from being transmitted on their networks.

Civil liberties organizations like EFF and the ACLU properly take a confrontational posture any time they see signs that the government is trying to stifle free expression. But the same posture simply isn’t appropriate when they’re dealing with private companies. As I’ve written before that I don’t think this is the sort of thing EFF should be getting tangled up in in the first place. EFF’s core competence is in resisting censorship by the government. The tactics that work well against government censorship come across as unreasonable and cartoonish when directed at a private company.

  • http://leftlaneblog.blogspot.com/ leesa

    Good point. There’s a big difference between government and private companies.

  • http://leftlaneblog.blogspot.com/ leesa

    Good point. There’s a big difference between government and private companies.

  • http://www.outblaze.com Suresh Ramasubramanian

    Thanks for understanding. The problem with the EFF and their reaction to spam is that its a consistent theme – dating back to the last several years now.

    http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ramasubramanians-critique/ for example (back in 2004).

    Some links to earlier politech posts as well (http://www.hserus.net/cindycohn-reply.txt and http://www.hserus.net/brad-reply.txt) are along much the same lines.

    So, I rather doubt that EFF’s reaction to spam filtering is going to change anytime soon.

    regards
    -srs

  • http://www.outblaze.com Suresh Ramasubramanian

    Thanks for understanding. The problem with the EFF and their reaction to spam is that its a consistent theme – dating back to the last several years now.

    http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ra… for example (back in 2004).

    Some links to earlier politech posts as well (http://www.hserus.net/cindycohn-reply.txt and http://www.hserus.net/brad-reply.txt) are along much the same lines.

    So, I rather doubt that EFF’s reaction to spam filtering is going to change anytime soon.

    regards
    -srs

  • Danny O’Brien

    I’m sympathetic to your argument, though I do have to disagree on the details; I did contact AOL as soon as we were aware of the problem, for instance: by mid-afternoon, AOL’s own tech support team were saying the problem would be fixed within 3-5 days, which seemed unacceptable. Twenty minutes after the press release went out, it was fixed.

    Our criticism of AOL is that this kind of systemic banning of URLs can lead to a diminishing of free speech for a large group of people, without feedback mechanisms in place for those customers to know what’s going on. No-one who missed a mail mentioning that site (or more importantly, the many other URLs that AOL said were caught in the same snafu) will ever know what they missed. AOL’s anti-spam system, in common with many ISPs, makes these decisions on behalf of tens of millions of people. We think that’s an understandable shortcut that has strong, immediate effects on much speech.

    And AOL is actually rather good in this regard: at least they gave a slightly explanatory error message to the senders of messages containing the URL. Other ISPs just drop blacklisted mails without saying a word to either party. That means there’s not much information for customers to make decision. And without good information, markets gum up. Not so much as governments can, of course. No-one was born into AOL servitude; but there’s a great deal of inertia both accidental and engineered in moving email address.

    The question is: how do make the market more fluid? One solution is regulatory — for example Eliot Spitzer settled with AOL last year for $1.25 million following NY complaints of unhonored cancellations. The other is some increase in information that would let consumers make more informed decisions: third-parties groups, examining and reporting on delivery statistics. Yet another is to establish some kind of distaste in the market for certain practices. A lot of AOL’s good practices come not directly from market pressure, but the internalised good behaviour of their delivery team. Institutionally, deliverability teams don’t take bribes (even though I understand that such departments do get regular offers of gifts from particularly keen marketers), even though there’s plenty of room for cheating within this system. A lot of the DearAOL.com campaign has been on this topic: the principle that certification systems risk their own market safeguards, and of compromising the principal-agent relationship of the ISP and mailbox owner, if they accompany their certification with a cash payment.

    I think one of the problems here is that the rhetoric around censorship revolves around motive. When a government censors, our assumption is that it is for grim political intent – the silencing of opponents. When the same language is applied to businesses, it feels odd, because we don’t consider the same values present among businesses.

    But really what we’re talking about here is attempting to create culture-wide safeguards. Free speech’s most important effects in society may be because it reduces the costs of obtaining new information. If that is choked in a widespread way by business or government, then we have a problem, and not necessarily one that solves itself. The solutions in both the public and private sector require vigilance, and active involvement.

  • Danny O’Brien

    I’m sympathetic to your argument, though I do have to disagree on the details; I did contact AOL as soon as we were aware of the problem, for instance: by mid-afternoon, AOL’s own tech support team were saying the problem would be fixed within 3-5 days, which seemed unacceptable. Twenty minutes after the press release went out, it was fixed.

    Our criticism of AOL is that this kind of systemic banning of URLs can lead to a diminishing of free speech for a large group of people, without feedback mechanisms in place for those customers to know what’s going on. No-one who missed a mail mentioning that site (or more importantly, the many other URLs that AOL said were caught in the same snafu) will ever know what they missed. AOL’s anti-spam system, in common with many ISPs, makes these decisions on behalf of tens of millions of people. We think that’s an understandable shortcut that has strong, immediate effects on much speech.

    And AOL is actually rather good in this regard: at least they gave a slightly explanatory error message to the senders of messages containing the URL. Other ISPs just drop blacklisted mails without saying a word to either party. That means there’s not much information for customers to make decision. And without good information, markets gum up. Not so much as governments can, of course. No-one was born into AOL servitude; but there’s a great deal of inertia both accidental and engineered in moving email address.

    The question is: how do make the market more fluid? One solution is regulatory — for example Eliot Spitzer settled with AOL last year for $1.25 million following NY complaints of unhonored cancellations. The other is some increase in information that would let consumers make more informed decisions: third-parties groups, examining and reporting on delivery statistics. Yet another is to establish some kind of distaste in the market for certain practices. A lot of AOL’s good practices come not directly from market pressure, but the internalised good behaviour of their delivery team. Institutionally, deliverability teams don’t take bribes (even though I understand that such departments do get regular offers of gifts from particularly keen marketers), even though there’s plenty of room for cheating within this system. A lot of the DearAOL.com campaign has been on this topic: the principle that certification systems risk their own market safeguards, and of compromising the principal-agent relationship of the ISP and mailbox owner, if they accompany their certification with a cash payment.

    I think one of the problems here is that the rhetoric around censorship revolves around motive. When a government censors, our assumption is that it is for grim political intent – the silencing of opponents. When the same language is applied to businesses, it feels odd, because we don’t consider the same values present among businesses.

    But really what we’re talking about here is attempting to create culture-wide safeguards. Free speech’s most important effects in society may be because it reduces the costs of obtaining new information. If that is choked in a widespread way by business or government, then we have a problem, and not necessarily one that solves itself. The solutions in both the public and private sector require vigilance, and active involvement.

  • http://www.hserus.net Suresh Ramasubramanian

    Danny – this sounds quite interesting. However this isnt the first time the EFF has come out with completely unfounded criticism of spam filtering.

    http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ramasubramanians-critique/

    for example .. Annalee was hinting that Earthlink blocking a mailserver she happened to use (as it was an open relay) was a Scientologist plot

    And before she ever started on the blackmail meme, Cindy was quite happy to spread a “spam filtering blocklists = McCarthy’s communist witchhunting blacklists” meme. http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ramasubramanians-critique/

    Her press releases have quite a few inaccuracies too .. of the “twist words around like pretzels” and “fill space with half truths as a substitute for facts” variety.

    Add to that the usual ramblings and rantings of John Gilmore, who only wants to be left in peace to run his open relay and open proxy on toad.com, no matter that spammers run riot through it and viruses hardcode it as their smarthost. And is quite vocal about it.

    Peter Seebach has an interesting take on this by the way – again equally critical of moveon, the eff and dearaol – http://www.seebs.net/log/archives/000332.html

    The EFF was an organization I had a lot of respect for. Once. Years ago. No longer, not for the last three or four years, and certainly not after this hysterical over-reaction to goodmail.

    –suresh

  • http://www.hserus.net Suresh Ramasubramanian

    Danny – this sounds quite interesting. However this isnt the first time the EFF has come out with completely unfounded criticism of spam filtering.

    http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ra

    for example .. Annalee was hinting that Earthlink blocking a mailserver she happened to use (as it was an open relay) was a Scientologist plot

    And before she ever started on the blackmail meme, Cindy was quite happy to spread a “spam filtering blocklists = McCarthy’s communist witchhunting blacklists” meme. http://www.politechbot.com/2004/11/15/suresh-ra

    Her press releases have quite a few inaccuracies too .. of the “twist words around like pretzels” and “fill space with half truths as a substitute for facts” variety.

    Add to that the usual ramblings and rantings of John Gilmore, who only wants to be left in peace to run his open relay and open proxy on toad.com, no matter that spammers run riot through it and viruses hardcode it as their smarthost. And is quite vocal about it.

    Peter Seebach has an interesting take on this by the way – again equally critical of moveon, the eff and dearaol – http://www.seebs.net/log/archives/000332.html

    The EFF was an organization I had a lot of respect for. Once. Years ago. No longer, not for the last three or four years, and certainly not after this hysterical over-reaction to goodmail.

    –suresh

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