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 URL in it. EFF responded by accusing AOL of deliberate censorship:

“This proves the 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 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.

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