Are you practicing censorship? Yes. Just ask Caesar.

Interesting debate going on at one of our websites about how to handle advertising coming in from Google adsense with themes that are presented in misleading, stupid, sensational ways.     Often these ads are political and tend to be from the frothing-at-the-mouth right wing websites like NewsMax, where they routinely parody Obama.

Since we’ve had complaints about these ads (ie they offend some people and often annoy us), the question arises about what to do.     This question is complicated by the fact that it was a *prospective advertiser* who complained to us, so I’m a bit concerned that our incentives in this case are getting aligned with one point of view over another.    We don’t want political advertisers having a say in what their political opponents can or can’t  say at our site.

I think my partner has come to a good compromise position which is to shut off the images and use the text only ads.   He thinks this is NOT a form of censorship but I’d say it is – albeit an acceptable kind of censorship in cases like ours:

I also would say that if one narrows things to the censorship protections defined by free speech provisions of US Constitution the game changes since the supreme court generally argues that for legal purposes we are generally concerned with political censorship and not commercial speech or “hate” speech. Both of those are legally (and I think usually appropriately) censored.

Your definition of censorship is too narrow, a common frustration of mine.   This lets people argue – totally speciously – that THEY don’t ever censor but OTHER people do.

Virtually everybody believes in some censorship – in fact I would argue emphatically that “zero censorship” is a sociopathic condition   (e.g. child pornographers should be shot or imprisoned, people who routinely shout loud obscenities in public should generally be stifled).

So, is it censorship to limit the choices of people practicing free speech *in any way whatsoever* ?  Of course it is!
Why?   I direct you to the origins of the word “censor”.

Etymology: Latin, Roman magistrate, from censēre to give as one’s opinion, assess; perhaps akin to Sanskrit śaṁsati he praises
Date: 1526

1 : a person who supervises conduct and morals: as a : an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter b : an official (as in time of war) who reads communications (as letters) and deletes material considered sensitive or harmful
2 : one of two magistrates of early Rome acting as census takers, assessors, and inspectors of morals and conduct

7 thoughts on “Are you practicing censorship? Yes. Just ask Caesar.

  1. I can have exclude anything I want on my web site. I don’t have to talk (or allow others to talk) about Spain if I want my web site to be about Italy. That’s not censorship, that’s focused content.

    Censorship applies, as in your Etymology, to “an official”, meaning someone from Government. Those are the people who shouldn’t tell us what to read–or what we can’t read.


  2. I’m pretty sure you could filter political advertising out through the AdSense publisher interface. I don’t allow tooth whitening ads on my site for instance, because I think they are a scam and cheapen the sites I see them on.

  3. Virtually everybody believes in some censorship – in fact I would argue emphatically that “zero censorship” is a sociopathic condition (e.g. child pornographers should be shot or imprisoned, people who routinely shout loud obscenities in public should generally be stifled).

    Well-stated, and I agree. Online censorship, however, doesn’t usually work that way–it involves the proverbial gray areas. Censoring obscenity, or threats, or even off-topic/stupid comments seems reasonable, yet the typical censor/moderators on the big political sites (KOS, Salon, TPM, Slate etc) often censor for dissenting views, which is content.

    Some Kossack might say, “how stupid” when someone dares to diss an Obama policy (say his defense spending, or his pandering to religious conservatives). Then the offender is troll-rated. Most political sites operate in that fashion, as do even tech. sites, or personal interest, etc: if you don’t agree to the site “ideology” (whether it’s stated or not), then one is moderated. It’s not a big deal perhaps on a “TV shows of the 60s” blog, but on the high-powered sites like KOS it can be somewhat troubling (as during the ’08 campaign when KOS started banning Hillary supporters). Of course rightist/libertarian sites do it as well–what, you support some New Deal policies? Auf-veeder-sehen…

    • How about some real innovation and allow the end-user to control their level of censorship?

      Allow free speech for all even the whackos…but empower the users to set censorship filters for what they want to filter out.

      As soon as we let somebody else control what you see or don’t see the solution is corrupt.

      The name of the game now is end-user – that is freedom.

      • Glenn think this is a really interesting idea. Since values and preferences are subjective this may be the best way to create a reasonable, open space for ideas. However you would still have the problems with material that (in my subjective opinion as well as the Supreme Court’s) should lead to arrest and incarceration. I don’t think people should have unlimited free speech. If somebody is planning a bombing, IMO think it’s OK to arrest them solely on the basis of their speech.

  4. James I think you have a good point about how in general censorship concerns related to officials rather than regular Joe’s, but we want to be careful to recognize and challenge may forms of non-official censorship as well, such as those Horatiox describes. Daily KOS is well known for unabashedly sticking to their party line. I don’t see how you could make a case that is not a form of censorship even though it seems to happen pretty much unofficially at the flunky level of blog review.

  5. What I would say Joe…if someone is planning a bombing then they should certainly be investigated. But what a perfect tool for LE to not have to worry about some company inadvertinely censoring content that they could use to find the perps.

    What happens if a company censors and that information could have been used to prevent a tragedy?

    We need to error on the side of free speech and empower the people to protect us…

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