Blogger is not a business like other businesses
In this post, I want to try to draw out the wider implications of the issues raised in this blog so far, as well as their connections to some other important issues.
Please note that although in the current blog I have talked about the de-indexing of my main blog, the de-indexing of that blog was not the reason I put the current blog together. As Ross Perot (the third-party candidate in a couple of US presidential elections) used to say, "It's not about me." My only concern is that censorship has raised its ugly head. In any case, neither that blog nor this blog is at the moment subject to de-indexing. So I have no personal beef with Blogger whatsoever.
To people who say Blogger's flag is a good thing, because it helps them fight spam and porn sites and so on, I would say: (1) as I have explained in this blog, Blogger has developed specific tools to fight spam; the flag has nothing to do with spam; and (2) the best way to fight porn sites is to send your complaint directly to firstname.lastname@example.org .
In early August I came to the conclusion, possibly wrongly, that Blogger had de-indexed my main blog. I didn't do or say anything about it just then, because it didn't matter. There were thousands of blogs far better than mine out there, and the apparent de-indexing of my blog wasn't important.
But then Blogger's flag thing came along, which seemed to be Blogger's way of "contracting out" and, more significantly, normalizing the suppression of individual blogs. As I interpreted it, people's hatred of spam had made Blogger bold enough to openly propose censorship. That's when I got involved, because it was no longer just about me. It had become a political issue.
As I want to keep this discussion "bipartisan," I won't get into the parallels with the general decline in civil rights in the last few years and the declared reasons for them. I will just say that I feel the general political environment is what has emboldened Blogger (and many other larger and smaller organizations) to commit such breaches of common law, and possibly of statutory law. Many people have become so obsessed with protecting "their own" that they have grown careless of the social goods that are being taking taken away from them.
We simply do not know how many non-spam and non-porn blogs had already been de-indexed as objectionable prior to the flag's introduction. Blogger has provided no information on this issue, other than general declarations of principle.
I am sure the average blogger is as opposed to censorship of ideas as I am. And I think the main reason that people haven't flooded Blogger with complaints about the "flag," apart from the usual apathy caused by a sense of disempowerment, is that people think the flag has something to do with spam/porn. A lot of people have complained, but apparently not enough of them, as shown by the fact that the flag is still there.
I have stated as follows:
Google's Blogger is simply a service-provider. In the same way that the electricity company has no right to tell you and me what to do with the electricity it provides, Blogger has no similar right either. Some commenters have pointed out that Blogger is a free service, and so we have no rights against it. But there is no such thing as a free service (unless it is provided by a charity). For example, some newspapers are distributed free of charge in order to be able to collect advertising revenue. Blogger is one of the many ways for the Google conglomerate to make a name for itself and sell other products and services through that reputation. It is not free.
In their comments, some of this blog's readers have made various objections to the above position, including the following two:
1 "Blogger owns the blogs even if you write them. Blogger doesn't have to justify what blogs it includes or doesn't in its traffic generating mechanisms. Only government censorship (at least in the USA) is unconstitutional. Otherwise, freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses. And, here, Blogger owns the press we're all using. It can make whatever rules it wants about what appears here."
2 "Well, I agree that the writing on our blogs doesn't belong to Blogger/Google, but to us. However, the servers where the blogs live do not belong to us, but to Blogger/Google. Google has allowed people, including us, to share our ideas with the world (at no cost to us beyond our labors). They clearly believe they receive value in return for doing this, and we're happy with the arrangement as well. Now if either party to this arrangement wants to end it, they have the right to do so. This is the way it should be. We have no right to force Google to continue to host our writings, no matter how wonderful we think they are. Google has no right to force us to keep our work there, either, if we decide to move it or delete it entirely. You seem to believe that Google has some permanent obligation to host our blogs even if it decides doing so is harmful to its interests. I have some server space available through my ISP. If I let you put your blog there and later change my mind, have I lost the rights to that space to you? If I want to change my ISP do I have to keep this one, too, so I can keep hosting your blog? If I were hosting your blog as a business instead of as a friend, why would that be different?"
I appreciate these thoughtful objections, but they leave me unconvinced, perhaps because our starting points are different. I never take the rights that powerful groups in society have arrogated to themselves for granted. Of course, not everyone sees things that way.
As to the first objection, I would say Blogger and blogging are not a part of the "free press," and therefore arguments based on the meaning and extent of freedom of the press are irrelevant here. When you buy a newspaper or watch a TV program, you are aware that their content is dictated by their owners. They are the ones who hire and pay the writers, and who can dictate what is acceptable or not acceptable within their organization. This is not something peculiar to the press. Rather, it is simply a part of the usual lack of democracy within any capitalist business enterprise. When we accept employment, we implicitly give up certain rights and freedoms that we (theoretically) enjoy as citizens of a democratic society. The blogging community at large are not, however, employees of Google or Blogger, and have not given up such freedoms. In other words, Blogger has created the appearance of providing a forum for our opinions that is free of the usual undemocratic constraints within a capitalist enterprise. If Blogger fails to deliver such a forum, it can legitimately be accused of misrepresentation.
Another aspect of the issue is brought up by the second objection above, which compares the relationship between blog writers and Blogger to (1) person A providing some space to person B for person B's website, and then taking it back, and (2) an Internet service provider (ISP) selling space and then, in its sole discretion, taking it back. The commenter suggests that the two cases are parallel. I don't think they are. Individual rights are not the same as civil rights. That is to say, I agree that no conditions can be attached to person A in case number (1) taking his/her space back, unless otherwise provided for in a contract. The same does not apply to case number (2), because an ISP can only take the space back if the person using it has breached some term of the contract, or if the ISP has been authorized by a court decision to suspend the service, or else due to circumstances beyond the ISP's control, such as bankruptcy. Otherwise, the ISP cannot suspend the service, and if it does, it would potentially be subject to legal action.
In any case, the example of the ISP is not really relevant to the current case, because Blogger is not an ISP. Blogger is a minor part of the Google empire. It is in the business of providing a soap box for people, that is, a place where people can share their ideas, opinions, and interests. The entire emphasis is on its not being a business arrangement. The spam and splog (spam blog) problem is a good illustration of this. The primary reason that splogs are seen as illegitimate is that they are purely and simply about making money. They have nothing to do with sharing ideas, opinions, and interests. Had Blogger been an ISP, though, it would have had no problem with any kind of business site (with the possible exception of pornographic sites and so on). So it is pretty clear that Blogger is not an ISP.
But to get back to the "flag." The flag is based on the assumption that Blogger's staff are qualified to judge what is objectionable. That is very much open to question. But it is also based on the assumption that we, that is, the blog readers, are qualified to judge what is objectionable. Most of us agree, at an abstract level, that pornography and violence are objectionable. But are we qualified to distinguish between pornography and artistic expression? Are we qualified to distinguish between gratuitous depictions of violence, on one hand, and such depictions in the form of political statements, on the other? We are all opposed to spam, but do we all know exactly what spam is? If you think you do, take a look at this blog that I came across by accident today: http://www.sharebadshah.blogspot.com/ . It has all the usual hallmarks of a spam blog, but when you take a closer look, it turns out to be someone's fairly legitimate business-oriented blog. Are all blogs with business content objectionable? Then perhaps all the thousands of blogs that carry ads should be banned as well. Not only are we, as blog readers, unqualified to judge what is and what is not objectionable, but Blogger's staff themselves need guidelines that specify exactly what sort of thing they can de-index or ban.
When a small business becomes a big business, its actions and decisions move from the private realm into the public realm. As far as I know, Google's Blogger is now the largest provider of blogging services. A great deal of responsibility that has nothing to do with purely business decisions goes along with that position. Blogging has allowed vox populi to be heard fearlessly and without censorship for the very first time in history. Also, placing technological restrictions, such as de-indexing, on the dissemination of ideas tends to work to the disadvantage of people with less technical know-how. The more technically knowledgeable will generally find ways around such obstacles. One result of the flag and de-indexing, then, is that voices that have already become weakened by the technological revolution will become weaker still.
Blogger is not a business like other businesses. Ideas that appear on a blog have not been subjected to purchase or sale, and therefore do not belong to Blogger to do with as it wishes.