The slippery slope of censorship: the copyright lobby and child porn

The title of the MAFIAAFire forum post “The Copyright Lobby Absolutely Loves Child Pornography” is intentionally controversial and eye-grabbing, but when you look at the actual content of the post all of a sudden the politics and chess game of censorship as played by the copyright lobby makes all kinds of sense.

From the article, quoting Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group (Antipiratgruppen) from 2007 May 27:

Politicians do not understand file sharing, but they understand child pornography, and they want to filter that to score points with the public. Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing.

And later in the article (this time, quoting the original poster in the present day):

The reasoning is simple and straightforward. Once you have established that someone who is in a position to censor other people’s communication has a responsibility to do so, the floodgates open and those middlemen can be politically charged with filtering anything that somebody objects to being distributed.

This is a perfect example of the “slippery slope” problem. With apologies to Procter and Gamble, a slightly modified version of the old Pringles slogan applies here: Once they drop (censor something), they can’t stop.

I detest child pornography as much as any other law-abiding citizen. However, a far worse problem than child porn is censorship of otherwise legitimate speech because of suspected copyright infringement. In the past, the NFL has censored obvious fair use of football telecasts (the only example I know of), mainly because YouTube made it so easy and few people bothered to contest the DMCA notices. I can only imagine what it will be like to try to use the net when someone suspects something is child pornography, when it clearly is not, and the request just gets intercepted. This is further complicated by the fact that even “virtual” child pornography has been outlawed.

The ends do not justify the means. We need to stop blatant censorship dead in its tracks now, or we will certainly regret the end result and wish we had acted sooner in a few years. I support in principle the work of the German group Mogis (), which is against the censorship of the Internet.

I concur with one of the conclusions of this post:

The conclusion is as unpleasant as it is inevitable. The copyright industry lobby is actively trying to hide egregious crimes against children, obviously not because they care about the children, but because the resulting censorship mechanism can be a benefit to their business if they manage to broaden the censorship in the next stage. All this in defense of their lucrative monopoly that starves the public of culture.

If you are disgusted after reading this, you’re not alone. I think the copyright lobby has honestly reached a new low. I hope you, my readers, can see through this pathetic ruse; if you can avoid purchasing the products of the copyright lobby, please do so. I realize some people just can’t, and that’s fine. But the only way we will be able to speak the language of the large corporations is by hitting them in the pocketbook.

Update 2011-12-05: The above-linked post may bring up a “403 Forbidden” server error due to a misconfiguration on the destination server. If this happens, please copy and paste the link target into a new tab and it should load.

Church vs. mom, all over a Halloween costume

I ran across this story in my drafts folder and considered just deleting it like about 50-75% or so of the stories I make draft entries for and never get around to turning into actual posts. On one hand, this story is months old, and nothing new has happened in this story since February. However, in a broader sense, however, the issue of intolerance is still very relevant and timely and is a topic that cannot easily be ignored, and I believe this story should not be simply forgotten. It is for this reason I decided to go ahead and post about this topic, even though it may appear to have gathered a visible layer of dust.

In an article in The Pitch, a local Kansas City area news outlet, the story of a needlessly ugly dispute between a mother and her church is told. The story quickly got national attention (as you can see by the embedded video from the Today show).

From the beginning. On 2010 November 2, Nerdy Apple Bottom (Sarah) wrote this post about her son’s Halloween experience at a church preschool. Sarah made a command decision as a parent that if he wants to dress up as a female character for Halloween, that’s his decision. Three moms at the church preschool apparently chose to make a huge issue out of it.

Before I get into this, I’d like to note it’s a bit of a surprise here to see a church doing anything special for Halloween at all. I have heard of some churches going as far as to call it “the devil’s holiday” or the like. I fail to see how dressing up in costumes is in any way related to devil worship. It is interesting to note that many so-called “Christian” holidays actually have pagan roots (for example Yule began as a pagan festival but was absorbed into the Christian holiday and renamed Christmas).

Quoting the post:

We walk down the hall to where his classroom is.

And that’s where things went wrong. Two mothers went wide-eyed and made faces as if they smelled decomp. And I realize that my son is seeing the same thing I am. So I say, “Doesn’t he look great?” And Mom A says in disgust, “Did he ask to be that?!” I say that he sure did as Halloween is the time of year that you can be whatever it is that you want to be. They continue with their nosy, probing questions as to how that was an option and didn’t I try to talk him out of it. Mom B mostly just stood there in shock and dismay.

My reaction to the story up to this point is a bit unusual. It actually made me quite disappointed I never tried to dress up as a female character for Halloween when attending my Baptist private school when I was younger. I guess my desire to “break the mold” had yet to fully develop by fifth grade (which the last year I attended this school, and that summer coincidentally began the beginning of a 6½ year stretch where I distanced myself from organized religion and became a “devout Atheist” — my words at the time, which I know is a contradiction in terms).

I like how Sarah handles the reaction of Mom A and Mom B, and defends Halloween as the one day a year a kid can choose whatever costume he or she wishes. (And yes, I realize adults have Halloween parties too.)

Continuing on:

And then Mom C approaches. She had been in the main room, saw us walk in, and followed us down the hall to let me know her thoughts. And they were that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it. To which I calmly replied that I would do no such thing and couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. She continued on and on about how mean children could be and how he would be ridiculed.

Really, Mom C? I have a radical idea for you. Why don’t you let Sarah raise her kids, and you stick to raising yours? Being ridiculed is no reason to give up on expressing oneself. It does not matter whether it’s Halloween in preschool, or making a work of art as an adult.

But it doesn’t end with the pure hate and bullying from Moms ABC. No, the story goes on and the plot thickens. On November 4, the blog post goes viral, getting picked up by news outlets all over the world. The following day, Sarah gets a call from the pastor at the church. The day after, the pastor decided Sarah had broken the 8th commandment by “bearing false witness”. On November 8 (two days after that), Sarah gets a text message from the pastor while she was in New York City for the Today Show, then another call the following day (November 9) to schedule a meeting for the next day (November 10).

Sarah writes this rebuttal on November 16 appropriately titled “Not necessary, but I’m doing it anyway.” Here are what I consider some of the more quotable quotes from that second post:

1. […] I am just as shocked as you are that this went viral. If I could have predicted this would go viral, I would also have advertising on my blog and possibly a high paying job at an ad agency.
[…]

6. […] [Boo] will hear this story for the rest of his life. And be totally bored with it by the time he’s 8. And if someone brings it up 10 years from now, it will be because a mean parent held onto it for a decade. And that’s a problem in and of itself.

7. I did not stop parenting that day. Boo will be raised to not bully, to be who he is, to be kind, to be able to handle himself in all kinds of situations. He is a strong child. He will be a strong adult.

After all that, there’s a long window (over two months) where Sarah has no contact with the pastor at all. Fast forward to 2011 January 26, the second and final meeting at the pastor’s office, which Sarah discusses in detail in a post entitled “Epilogue”.

More than 2 months later, I was called in for another meeting. Upon arriving, he started talking about my need to apologize to the women I had slandered. He read aloud to me from a brochure on Peacemaking, underscoring the fact that I needed to apologize. I disagreed. […]

For an hour and a half he spoke to me as if this was my fault, […] He continued to accuse me of libel and slander, told me I didn’t have a “free ride to talk about others,” and that I needed to apologize and reconcile.

I was offered 4 steps to restore my relationships with Moms ABC:

  1. Write Moms ABC an apology with an example of how to word it.
  2. Take down the Halloween post.
  3. No longer write or speak of these women regarding my “accusations.”
  4. Consider taking the entire blog down.

So now it becomes obvious that the pastor’s motivation here is censorship and humiliation. I am glad Sarah chose not to do so; bullies loathe people who choose to defend themselves.

Indeed, the pastor’s “offer” here seems to be at odds with Mark 12:31:

The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.

The pastor’s sentiment here, from my point of view, is one of pure hate. It’s completely opposed to any sense of love. For that matter, so is the sentiment of Moms ABC: pure hate, pure intolerance, pure vitriol. All over a kid’s Halloween costume. When I look at it like that, I realize just how silly this is.

Moms ABC had an excellent chance to turn this into a lesson in tolerance and respecting the decisions of others, on what it means to be in a free country like the US, and the meaning of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (as penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in The Friends of Voltaire, commonly misattributed to Voltaire himself)

And, obviously, they blew it.

Here in 2011, there are brave and spectacular parents like Sarah out there, that were the best parents they knew how to be. I hope when I look back on posts like this in a decade or two, that the offspring of the spectacular parents made more of an impact over the years. I believe, given enough time, good will triumph over evil, and as (possibly mis-)attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Every time an authority figure like a pastor convinces a good mom like Sarah to retract a blog entry and apologize for a parenting decision that’s the least bit controversial, we all lose. I’m confident Boo (and Sarah’s other children) will grow up to be great people and I wish the family the best.

The medical profession and censorship of opinion

Health care professionals are supposed to do no harm, per the Hippocratic Oath. Who would ever have thought that some of these so-called “professionals” would partake of censorship?

Timothy Lee’s recent article on arstechnica.com highlights a dentist who is in fact doing exactly this:

I needed a new dentist, and Yelp says Dr. Cirka is one of the best in the Philadelphia area. The receptionist handed me a clipboard with forms to fill out. After the usual patient information form, there was a “mutual privacy agreement” that asked me to transfer ownership of any public commentary I might write in the future to Dr. Cirka. Surprised and a little outraged by this, I […] refus[ed] to sign and [the receptionist] show[ed] me the door.

The story goes on to say this is actually part of a template issued by an organization quite ironically and idiotically called Medical Justice. Indeed, Timothy has likely stumbled upon just the tip of the iceberg, and there are probably several doctors and dentists blindly relying on the advice of Medical Justice to protect their practice against slander and libel, when in fact these provisions not only do no such thing but instead do more to make those doctors and dentists look bad.

My advice to Dr. Cirka, and for that matter any doctors and dentists facing similar problems: don’t censor your patients, and let your good work speak for itself. Have an attorney review any “legalese” in the forms you have new patients fill out and sign; don’t blindly follow the advice of organizations such as Medical Justice.

“First do no harm” applies to free speech rights, too. At least, it should in any sane society.

Media giant vs. media non-profit: Comcast’s mistaken snap decision

A recent Ars Technica story simply must be read to be believed. The official Twitter account for the non-profit Reel Grrls, based in Seattle, WA, posted a tweet highly critical of Comcast, and particularly FCC Commissioner Merideth Baker’s acceptance of a lobbyist position immediately after approving the Comcast-NBC merger.

The vice president of communications for Comcast, Steve Kipp, took exception to this. So much exception, in fact, that he immediately sent an e-mail to the non-profit slamming Reel Grrls for “shaming us on Twitter” and stating Comcast’s funding to the nonprofit was withdrawn. Comcast’s spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice then says this was a mistake:

“At the corporate level, we had no information on this action taken by a single employee in Seattle,” Fitzmaurice told Ars. In a released statement, Fitzmaurice noted that Comcast apologized sincerely for the “unauthorized action” of their employee.

In the end, Reel Grrls decided to pursue other funding sources, rather than rely on money which could again be withdrawn when the organization says something else Comcast doesn’t like. From the article:

“We appreciate Comcast’s desire to rectify this situation and hope to encourage them to craft a corporate policy that clearly defends freedom of expression in order to ensure that this situation does not arise again,” said Teresa Mozur, administrative manager of Reel Grrls in a statement. “[I]t is exactly this type of public debate that can be squelched by mergers that threaten to raise the price for access to information, limit consumers’ choices in entertainment and news and give large media corporations the power to decide which opinions will see the light of day.”

I applaud Teresa for this decision on principle. It is difficult for a non-profit, particularly an arts-related non-profit, to be in a position to turn down funding. However, I also feel Teresa should never have been in the position to have to make such a choice.

It goes back to Mr. Kipp’s actions on behalf of Comcast, whether approved at the corporate level or not, and which I find to be absolutely despicable and patently devoid of respect for the mission of the non-profits which Comcast claims to support. This kind of heavy-handed action is exactly the reason I’m leery of making blogs like this one entirely funded by advertising or sponsorship.

(Note that by “like this one” I am referring to controversial, on-the-edge, not-for-the-easily-offended posts. As a marketing/PR consultant, I am obviously not averse to advertising in general; I did add advertisements to my other blog Quinn’s Big City in hopes of making it at least a break-even operation by the end of the year. As the topic of QBC is completely different, I endeavor to keep it as close to controversy-free as feasible; alienating advertisers is thus far less of a concern on that blog as it is here.)

Here’s hoping next time Comcast supports a non-profit, they really mean it, and don’t decide on a whim to defund that non-profit over justified criticism. Actually, I have even better advice for Comcast: don’t hire someone straight out of the FCC to be your lobbyist if you don’t like the criticism so much.

DHS takes a whack at the Mozilla Foundation

Harvey Anderson, a Mozilla employee in charge of legal and business affairs, recently blogged about a request by the Department of Homeland Security to take down the MafiaaFire add-on. The apparent issue DHS has with the plug-in is that it redirects the users from one domain to another automatically, which is usually not a big deal. Except that in this case, it’s a tool to circumvent domain name seizures.

[Mozilla’s] approach is to comply with valid court orders, warrants, and legal mandates, but in this case there was no such court order.  Thus, to evaluate Homeland Security’s request, we asked them several questions similar to those below to understand the legal justification:

  • Have any courts determined that the Mafiaafire add-on is unlawful or illegal in any way? If so, on what basis? (Please provide any relevant rulings)
  • Is Mozilla legally obligated to disable the add-on or is this request based on other reasons? If other reasons, can you please specify.
  • Can you please provide a copy of the relevant seizure order upon which your request to Mozilla to take down the Mafiaafire add-on is based?

The fact that DHS is requesting takedowns from third parties as far detached as Mozilla shows just how much the (losing) legal battle to stop copyright infringement has gotten out of hand. I’m glad we have people willing to step up and call the bluff of the DHS. Last I checked, there is nothing illegal about circumventing the seizure of a domain name, and in essence all MafiaaFire does is say “oh, here’s a request for seizedexampledomain.com, let’s redirect it to thenewdomaintheyjustregistered.net.” (In some cases, maybe it’s just the old or a new IP address bound to the old name; I haven’t really looked at how this plugin works.)

I see no reason why the list of these domains, and the information how to get to the same site despite the domain being hijacked, is protected speech. MafiaaFire could just as easily be used by Chinese citizens to circumvent government blocking. It’s an anti-censorship tool, and I take a dim view of those who attempt to censor the publishers of an anti-censorship tool.

I can accept that the DHS doesn’t like being shown up in such a fashion. But telling Mozilla to take down this plugin won’t make it go away. It’s out there, and the plugin authors will undoubtedly find somewhere else to post it.