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Further Thoughts On Moderation v. Discretion v. Censorship

Welcome back to Techdirt's favorite faux game show, Playing Semantics! This week, we're diving back into the semantics of moderation, discretion, and censorship. As a reminder, this bit is what we were arguing about last time:

Moderation is a platform operator saying "we don't do that here." Discretion is you saying "I won't do that there." Censorship is someone saying "you can't do that anywhere" before or after threats of either violence or government intervention.

Now, if we're all caught up, let's get back into the game!

A Few Nits to Pick

In my prior column, I overlooked a couple of things that I shouldn't have. I'll go over them here to help everyone get on the same page as me.

  1. anywhere — In re: "you can't do that anywhere", this refers to the confines of a given authority or government. It also refers to the Internet in general. Censors work to suppress speech where it matters the most (e.g., within a given country). Such censors often carry the authority necessary to censor (e.g., they work in the government).

  2. violence — "Violence" refers to physical violence. I hope I don't have to explain how someone threatening to harm a journalist is a form of censorship.

  3. government — This refers to any branch of any level of government within a given country. And anyone who uses the legal system in an attempt to suppress speech becomes a censor as well. (That person need not be an agent of the government, either.)

Censorship or Editorial Discretion?

From here on out, I'll be addressing specific comments — some of which I replied to, some of which I didn't.

One such comment brought up the idea of a headmaster as a censor. Lexico defines "headmaster" as "(especially in private schools) the man in charge of a school." We can assume a headmaster is the highest authority of the school.

In a reply to that comment, I said the following:

If the headmaster is a government employee, they're a censor. If they're the head of a private institution, they're a "censor" in a merely colloquial sense. The privately owned and operated Liberty University (henceforth Liberty U), for example, has engaged in what I'd normally call "moderation" vis-á-vis its campus newspaper — which, despite it being a frankly immoral and unethical decision, Liberty U has every right to do as a private institution. (Frankly, I'd be tempted to call such people censors outright, but that would kinda go against my whole bit.)

But the example I used gave me pause to reconsider. Jerry Falwell Jr. (the "headmaster" of Liberty U) and free speech have often come to metaphorical blows. I noted this through a link to an article from the blog Friendly Atheist. The article has a quote from a former editor for Liberty U's school newspaper, who describes how Falwell's regime ran the paper:

[W]e encountered an "oversight" system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell's assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted.

That raises the important question: Is that censorship or editorial discretion?

After reading the Washington Post article from which that quote comes, I would refer to this as censorship. I'll get into the why of my thinking on that soon enough. But suffice to say, "editorial discretion" doesn't often involve editors threatening writers with lawsuits or violence.

But though I call that censorship, some people might call it "moderation" or "editorial discretion". Falwell is, after all, exercising his right of association on his private property. What makes that "censorship" are the at-least-veiled threats against "dissenters".

Censorship Via Threats

Speaking of threats! Another comment took issue with how I defined censorship:

Why should it be "censorship" to threaten someone with a small financial loss (enforced by a court), but not to kick them off the platform they use to make the bulk of their income (independent of the government)? Is "you can speak on some other platform" fundamentally less offensive than "you can speak from another country", or is that merely a side-effect of the difficulty of physical movement?

To answer this as briefly as I can: A person can find a new platform with relative ease and little-to-no cost. No one can say the same for finding their way out of a lawsuit.

But that raises another important question: Does any kind of threat of personal or financial ruin count as censorship?

As I said above, the Liberty U example counts as censorship. As for the why? The following quotes from that WaPo article should help explain:

Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about "editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential." … Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it's a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school).

School leaders don't have the power of government to back their decisions. But they can still use their power and authority to coerce other people into silence. ("Stop writing stories like this or I'll kick you out of this school and then what will you do.") Even if someone can move to another platform and speak, a looming threat could stop them from wanting to do that.

And the threat need not be one of financial or personal ruin. Someone who holds a journalist at knife point and says "shut up about the president or else" is a censor. The violent person doesn't need government power; their knife and the fear it can cause are all they need.

Money and Speech

A comment I made about companies such as Mastercard and Visa elicited a reply that pointed out how they, too, are complicit in censorship:

I cited Visa and Mastercard specifically because they are at the top of the chain and it's effectively impossible to create a competitor. If they say something's not allowed it isn't unless you want to lose funding. Paypal has been notoriously bad about banning people for innocuous speech over the years, but there are other downstream providers that aren't Paypal (although if all of them throw someone off, it still erases the speech). I am of the opinion that high-level banks should be held to neutrality standards like ISPs should due to their position of power. Competitors would be preferable, but the lack of either is frightening.

They make a good point. Companies like Visa can legally refuse to do business with, say, an adult film studio. So can banks. This becomes censorship when all such companies cut off access to their services. An artist who creates and sells adult art can end up in a bad place if PayPal cuts the artist off from online payments.

As the comment said, creating a competitor to these services is nigh impossible. Get booted from Twitter and you can open a Mastodon for instance; get booted from PayPal and you're fucked. That Sword of Damocles–esque threat of financial ruin could be (and often is) enough to keep some artists from creating adult works.

It's-A Me, Censorship!

Ah, Nintendo and its overzealous need to have a "family-friendly" reputation. Whatever would we do without it~?

Remember when Nintendo of America removed, or otherwise didn't allow objectionable material in their video games until Mortal Kombat came about and there were Congressional hearings and then the ESRB was formed?

Would you call what Nintendo did censorship or moderation? There's an argument for moderation in that it was only within their purview and only on their video game systems, but there's also an argument for censorship in that once the video games went outside of the bounds set by Nintendo of America, they were subpoenaed by the Government with threats of punishment. The ESRB made their censorship/moderations policies moot, but it's an interesting question. What do you think, Stephen?

This example leads to another good question: Do Nintendo, Sony, etc. engage in censorship when they ask a publisher to remove "problematic" material?

Nintendo can allow or deny any game a spot on the Switch library for any reason. If the company had wanted to deny the publication of Mortal Kombat 11 because of the excessive violence, it could've done so without question. To say otherwise would upend the law. But when Nintendo asks publishers to edit out certain content? I'd call that a mix of "editorial discretion" and "moderation".

Nintendo has the right to have its systems associated with specific speech. Any publisher that wants an association with Nintendo must play by Nintendo's rules. Enforcing a "right to publication" would be akin to the government compelling speech. We shouldn't want the law to compel Nintendo into allowing (or refusing!) the publication of Doom Eternal on the Switch. That way lies madness.

Oh, and the ESRB didn't give Nintendo the "right" to allow a blood-filled Mortal Kombat II on the SNES. Nintendo already had that right. Besides, Mortal Kombat II came out on home consoles one week before the official launch of the ESRB. (The first game to receive the "M" rating was the Sega 32X release of DOOM.) The company allowed blood to stay because the Genesis version of the first game — which had a "blood" code — sold better.

That's All, Folks!

And thus ends another episode of Playing Semantics! I'd like to thank everyone at home for playing, and if you have any questions or comments, please offer them below. So until next time(?), remember:

Moderation is a platform/service owner or operator saying "we don't do that here." Personal discretion is an individual telling themselves "I won't do that here." Editorial discretion is an editor saying "we won't print that here," either to themselves or to a writer. Censorship is someone saying "you won't do that anywhere" alongside threats or actions meant to suppress speech.

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