Social Networks, Censorship and Free Speech

I refuse to be held hostage by Social Networking Websites any longer. I have a business landline, a cell phone (with text messaging and email capabilities,) I have multiple websites and I have multiple email addresses where friends and strangers alike can contact me. If my friends don’t want to provide me with the same information for them, then they probably aren’t my friends to begin with. If I need to make contacts with people I don’t currently know, I’ll do so on my own….as the business contacts I would be seeking normally don’t respond to emails through Social Networking websites anyway. In many cases, they don’t even control their own profiles. I do not need a third party website to facilitate interaction with my existing friends, and I do not have a strong enough desire to meet new friends or contacts, such that I will provide these companies the power to censor my communications with others, in order to do so. Marketing rarely seems to be a productive prospect on any of these websites anymore; as most people tend to ignore unsolicited invitations or requests for some type of action from “friends” in your network, as they arrive in such large quantities it becomes a full time job just to keep up with them. The only ones really getting productive marketing gains seem to be the sites themselves, who are selling ad space and our demographics to other companies. Are they providing me enough of a useful service that I should be helping them make advertising revenue, or is it possible that my company is bringing their website enough traffic, with our company’s fans, that they should be paying me? If Ashton Kutcher has a MySpace profile with even half the followers he has on his Twitter account, you know damn well they should be paying him to maintain it.

My first question would be; are we really communicating on these sites? Here is a scenario: A friend in my network posts a status comment. If I choose to respond, will I respond in a way that is directed towards my friend specifically in the manner I normally would, or will I need to censor or modify my response so it won’t offend anyone on my friend’s network who I do not know and who does not know me, but will also see my response, and do I need to censor my response such that it is also compliant with the terms and agreements of the website who is hosting the dialogue? Now, if I need to censor my communication with a friend in a manner inconsistent with a normal dialogue with them, in order not to offend any of the members of my friends network or violate the terms and agreements of the website…is that truly communication or just the superficial façade of communication? Am I giving someone else the power of censorship over my conversation? Of course, if I want the communication to be more secure and personal to my friend, I can send an email through the Social Networking website to them exclusively, but why do I need the Social Network to do that when I could just email them myself directly? Is it because of the anonymity the Social Networks provide to a person’s private email address? Again, if my friends don’t want me to have their private email address …they probably aren’t my friends.

I guess my next question would be: aren’t we choosing to circumvent our constitutional rights of free speech by using a third party platform for communication, where the third party can restrict your constitutional freedoms at their whim? Who decides what is and is not deemed acceptable? Is it an elected jury or a panel of your peers, or just some random Social Network employee who happens to be given the task of deciding if some specific post or upload is in violation of their employer’s terms and agreements at that moment? Why do we choose to communicate through a third party, who has their own set of extremely ambiguous guidelines for inappropriate forms of self-expression, and diminish our First Amendment rights for the sake of convenience by allowing them to have a greater degree of control over the censorship of our communication than we would otherwise be subject to? At some point, if we continue down this path, a few large companies will have more control over our civil rights than does the government we have elected to protect them. Should these companies be given enough power to one day decide that the image of a Star of David, a Cross or even a Pentacle, for example, is in violation of their terms and agreements such that they can delete your profile and network of contacts, at a moments notice, without any notice to you and without any accountability as to why that decision was made? History has repeatedly shown us the tragedies that happen, when our answer to this last question has been “yes,” and certain groups have obtained too much power!

Millions of people seem to be brainwashed into thinking these Social Networks are a necessity for communication, and with that mentality, we hand these companies a very large power we should not be so willing to give up. I’m certainly not trying to imply some type of conspiracy theory, but at what point do you become so reliant on your existing Social Network profile for communication, that you have to comply with whatever the website says in order to maintain contact with your network of friends? If these websites suddenly start requesting more and more concessions, with cloaked threats of losing all your network contacts with one click of their mouse if you don’t comply, where will you draw the line? Do you have personal contact information for all the people in your network, or do these Social Networks have the power to end your ability to have contact with a large number of people indefinitely, if not permanently? What would you do to maintain these contacts? Would you change your behavior? Would you provide more personal details about yourself? Would you provide personal information about your friends and family? Would you provide insider information about the publicly traded company you work for? Would you change your religious beliefs? Well, that’s the kind of leverage we’re giving them. Will you be willing to pay to access your contacts list when you need it? Think it won’t happen? Banks charge you fees for the privilege of giving them your money so they can make a profit earning interest off of it. How did that happen? They convinced us that they were a necessity, instead of just a convenience…once we bought into that philosophy, we felt we had no other choice but to make any concessions they requested.

We certainly get up in arms about companies that have the ability to connect our personal data to our IP addresses and the websites we visit, right? Well, what would scare you more; if some company finds out you…um, once…visited an adult themed website, or if some company could make your ability to contact a third of the people you interact with on a daily basis disappear in the blink of an eye? How many of you wouldn’t remember the phone numbers of your friends if you lost your cell phone, because the numbers are programmed into the phone’s memory? So, what if you had to ask someone else for permission every time you wanted to use your phone…would you really be comfortable with that? That’s basically what we’re doing; only we falsely assume these companies will never tell us “NO” at some point in the future.

By relying on these companies to facilitate our communications to the degree we do, puts them in a powerful position to dictate our actions and control outcomes in our lives. One of the corporations I control has been somewhat of a pet project and marketing experiment. It is a mix of independent record label and entertainment company. It has a sound business model at its core, which could change the efficiency with which the industry works overall. The experimental part of the project was to see if we could fund and build it based almost entirely on viral marketing…so we started with a controversial name, Cocaine Incorporated. I have had and maintained a Facebook profile page for the company since May of 2008, with an unsolicited fan base of just over 750 people. That isn’t enormous compared to some, but these were all people who found us on their own…which is a pretty good database of leads. It was not easy to setup the profile in the beginning, because the automated process of setting up a Facebook page kept rejecting the word “cocaine.” Right from the beginning, here was the first sign of censorship, based on false assumptions. After numerous emails back and forth, I finally clarified with them that Cocaine Incorporated is actually a legal California Corporation under that name, and is not in any way affiliated with drug use…so they finally approved the business page. We were getting fans quickly from the beginning, and decided we needed a creative way to market Cocaine Incorporated merchandise. We decided to use inflatable sex dolls dressed in Cocaine Incorporated merchandise…as fully clothed as a real model would need to be, nothing sexually explicit. This went over well, shirts became popular, and the fan base grew. These merchandise photos had been posted and commented on for over a year and a half as of this morning. We got such a great response from the dolls, that we decided to make an all girl punk/rock band with 4 inflatable dolls, all with separate looks and personalities and write real songs for them and do video skits for publicity…we named them the Fük Dahls. Notice the umlaut, it is NOT pronounced “uck!” They also are always fully clothed, have real short scale instruments to play and we have been posting publicity photos of them on the Cocaine Incorporated Facebook page for nearly a year. In fact, they have a Facebook profile of their own. So here is the thing; suddenly today, after a year and a half of maintaining this page in exactly the same compliant manner as we’ve always done, they suddenly delete the Cocaine Incorporated profile page and I get this email message from Facebook:

“You created a Page that has violated our Terms of Use. A Facebook Page is a distinct presence used solely for business or promotional purposes. Among other things, Pages that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down Pages that attack an individual or group, or that are set up by an unauthorized individual. If your Page was removed for any of the above reasons, it will not be reinstated. Continued misuse of Facebook’s features could result in the permanent loss of your account.

If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit the Terms applicable to Facebook Pages at http://www.facebook.com/terms_pages.php.

The Facebook Team“

Now here’s the thing: In the blink of an eye, I’ve got a year and a half’s worth of posts gone. I’ve lost access to nearly 800 fans. I will have to pay someone to recode all our other website pages, which currently have hyperlinks pointing people to the no longer existent Cocaine Incorporated Facebook page. There was absolutely no notice that anything we were doing might be deemed in violation of their terms and agreements in advance of deleting the profile, and in fact, we had done absolutely nothing different than we had been doing for over a year and a half. There’s no contact phone numbers for Facebook to try to discover exactly what they deemed was in violation of their terms and agreements. Facebook does not respond to any email inquiries, which ask them to clarify exactly what they felt was in violation of their terms and agreements. Just poof…you’re gone.

So I ask, do you want to give a company like Facebook this much power over you or your company? Do you want a company like Facebook to be able to determine for you what is and is not obscene in the eyes of society, and then irreparably erase all the hard work you’ve put into maintaining a Social Networking site if you should accidentally cross their imaginary line in the sand? Even worse, do you want to risk letting one random employee at this company, who has the power to delete your profile on a whim due to their personal opinion of what is or is not obscene, though it may be perfectly acceptable in societal norms, decide the fate of a year and a half’s worth of marketing efforts on your behalf by deleting your entire profile because they are more conservative than the rest of society?

Do you feel the word “Cocaine” is obscene, in and of itself? Do you feel a fully clothed inflatable doll is obscene because it has an open mouth? I am left to speculate that one of these things is the reason. At present, every single person I have ever seen on MySpace or Facebook has a mouth. And quite honestly, the only ones I can be absolutely sure have not used their mouths for obscene purposes, are the Fük Dahls. The point is not whether your answer is yes or no to the questions my project presents specifically, but to have you ask yourself what you are willing to lose, should someone else suddenly decide that what you think is perfectly acceptable to society was not acceptable to them. Are you willing to lose your online friends, money, your integrity, your faith or lack of faith in a specific deity? What are you willing to concede the day they threaten to deny you access to your network of friends? What will you do the day they delete your profile and all your online contacts without any notice, you don’t know why and cannot find out why? At what point do we hold our ground and stop giving other people too much power over our lives; the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears, Banks and Mortgage Brokers? Will we never learn?

______

As an addendum to this post after the fact, here is the email I received from them, my response requesting them to clarify why they deleted the business page and the response I did finally receive from Facebook.  Notice in the subject lines (Subject:  Re:  RE:  Facebook Warning) that their final response was in fact directly to my inquiry! Is this how you would want to be treated?

—–Original Message—–

From: Facebook [mailto:notification+zvoilv61@facebookmail.com]

Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:58 PM

To: dh@cocaineincorporated.com

Subject: Facebook Warning

 

Hello,

 

You created a Page that has violated our Terms of Use. A Facebook Page is a distinct presence used solely for business or promotional purposes. Among other things, Pages that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down Pages that attack an individual or group, or that are set up by an unauthorized individual. If your Page was removed for any of the above reasons, it will not be reinstated.  Continued misuse of Facebook’s features could result in the permanent loss of your account.

 

If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit the Terms applicable to Facebook Pages at http://www.facebook.com/terms_pages.php.

 

The Facebook Team

 

_______

From:  Cocaine Incorporated [dh@cocaineincorporated.com]
To:  ‘Facebook’; ‘info@facebook.com’; ‘legal@facebook.com’
Subject:  RE:   Facebook Warning

Hello,

 

This is extremely discriminatory.  Please clarify your accusation.  Cocaine Incorporated is a legal California Corporation doing business as an independent record label.  After having just spoken to my attorney, we do not feel that our organization has done anything to violate your terms and agreements in any way, and the deletion of our company’s page was unwarranted.  There were no photos posted that would legally be judged obscene in any way.  No statements were made that would be deemed hateful, threatening, or obscene or attack an individual or group.  Please respond with the specific reasons for your accusations!!!

 

Doug Hawk

CEO – Cocaine Incorporated

 

 

—–Original Message—–

From: info+0700if2@facebook.com [mailto:info+0700if2@facebook.com]

Sent: Sunday, December 13, 2009 8:53 AM

To: dh@cocaineincorporated.com

Subject: Re: RE: Facebook Warning

 

Hi,

 

Facebook users have the option to either deactivate or delete their accounts. The differences between the two options are described below.

 

If you deactivate your account, your profile and all information associated with it are immediately made inaccessible to other Facebook users. What this means is that you effectively disappear from the Facebook service. However, we do save your profile information (friends, photos, interests, etc.), so if you want to reactivate at some point, your account will look just the way it did when you deactivated. Many users deactivate their accounts for temporary reasons and expect their information to be there when they return to the service. You can deactivate your account through the “Deactivate Account” link on the Account page.

 

If you do not think you will use Facebook again and you would like to delete your account, you can do this yourself at the following address:

 

http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=delete_account

 

Please keep in mind that once your account is deleted, you will not be able to reactivate the account or retrieve any of the content or information you have added.

 

If you are currently unable to access your account, you will need to reset your password in order to log in. In order to do so, click the “Forgot your password?” link that appears above the field where you would normally enter your password. Entering your login email address on the next page will cause a new password to be sent to that email address. Once you receive your new password and can log in, you can deactivate or delete your account using the steps outlined above. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

 

Thanks for contacting Facebook,

 

The Facebook Team

 

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