“Censorship” by Businesses

Facebook Rejects Image from Gay Magazine

Here’s the story, from Toronto-based Xtra magazine: Xtra cover too sexy for Facebook

Facebook hit 150 million registered users on Jan 7, and the site’s founder boasts that if the social network were a country, it would surpass Japan, Russia and Nigeria in population.

But if Facebook Nation really existed, it would be a prudish state of the worst kind.

Censors at the popular site have removed the cover image of the Sep 11, 2008 issue of Xtra, with only a vague explanation: Facebook was trying to “protect” children from viewing the image.

(The image in question (shown incompletely above) shows several people — men and women — all nude and clearly in the midst of a menage-à-five-or-six or something. The only “private” parts showing are one woman’s breasts.)

In the article cited above, Xtra fights back. Says the author, “Clearly, the breasts in question are neither violent nor malicious. One could assume that Facebook decided that the image is obscene or offensive — but under what criteria? Facebook won’t say.” What the author leaves out is that, if you look closely at the picture (down near the, um, bottom of the cover) you see much much more than a couple of bare breasts. You see evidence that an actual sex-act is going on. I’m not sure Facebook’s decision in this case is prudishness “of the worst kind.” (To be fair: gay publications have historically been disproportionately subject to censorship, so it’s forgivable if they’re a little sensitive to the subject.)

But ok, that’s beside the point. The point is that Facebook is censoring content posted by its members. And on one hand, why shouldn’t they? It’s a privately-owned company, and people enjoy its services for free (since Facebook is supported by advertising, rather than by subscriptions). Indeed, it’s not clear that the term “censorship” applies, here. That term is usually limited to the suppression of ideas (including images) by government. When your local paper decides not to publish your letter to the editor, they’re not censoring you, they’re just not letting you use their privately-owned resources to make your point. Seen from that point of view, Facebook is totally justified in autocratically enforcing its own rules, and even, arguably, refusing to clarify what those rules are.

But it’s worth considering whether the scale & pervasiveness of a company makes a difference. With regard to most companies, it’s easy enough to say, look, if you’re not satisfied with the service (if you find the company unacceptably prudish, for example), take your business elsewhere. No one is forcing you to use their service. If you don’t like it, take your business elsewhere. But that line of argumentation weakens, perhaps, with regard to companies like Facebook. For a certain demographic, Facebook is basically the social networking site. If you’re not on it, you might as well not exist. My point is that it’s worth considering whether there’s a point at which the market share of a company, and its degree of integration into clients’ lives and communities, becomes such that it needs to function, ethically, more like a democratic government than like an autocratic business.

At what point does business ethics become political philosophy?

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