Censorship and the terms of service

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Policies

By: John Mack Freeman

Violating Blogspot’s terms of service led to shutting down an artist’s blog with no notice. Many are crying censorship. Is there any sort of recourse when a company owns the platform that’s being used?

Earlier this month, Blogspot suspended artist and writer Dennis Cooper’s blog that he had maintained for the last 14 years with no notice. Cooper has hired a lawyer and made several complaints to Google. The compaints have gone unanswered. The blog remains removed.

Via The Guardian:

Cooper updated DC’s blog six times a week, highlighting film, fiction and music he enjoyed. He had a featured post, twice a month, where he would take ads by escorts and highlight their literary qualities. Cooper’s work often depicts sexuality and violence in graphic terms, and some of the writing and images dealt with similar themes.

While the exact details are unknown, many surmise Google disabled the blog because of its content. And that is perfectly legal. When operating inside the sphere that a private company puts in place, that company controls the rules. Google’s terms of service state that they can “suspend or stop providing” services if people are not in compliance with their policies. In effect, they get to control the content provided on their platform if they so choose. And in this case, they so chose. So unless Cooper has a backup of his work on the blog, there is a good cache of it in the Wayback Machine, or Google relents, all that content is simply gone now.

What about the first amendment?

The ultimate line against censorship that we in the library world fall back against is the First Amendment. But oftentimes, the exact wording gets lost behind the freedoms that this amendment provides. The Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Censorship, Oppression, Silence, Victim, GraffitiAnd that’s where the trouble is when it comes to Google (or Facebook or any other modern social media or publishing platform) deleting material. Congress hasn’t made a law that made this censorship happen; this is just part of the terms of service that everyone has to agree to to use the service. The publishing output of American and global society continues to move to services hosted by private companies. With this move, the potential for censorship has grown exponentially. One of the most harmful grounds of censorship in the modern age aren’t in the challenges of single books in single locations.  Rather, it is in the ability of digitally created and maintained information to disappear in the blink of an eye by the changing or uneven enforcement of a company’s terms of service.

Evolving landscape for speech

The law around speech online is still evolving. Bland v. Roberts found that speech as seemingly uncreative as a Facebook Like is nonetheless protected. But despite huge controversy earlier this year about Facebook giving preference to non-conservative news sources in its algorithm, Ken Pauslon of the First Amendment Center says that it is just like any other publisher and free to publish or not to publish whatever it wants. This author has extremely limited legal knowledge, but it seems that while speech on social media and digital publishing platforms is protected just the same as any other more traditional speech, these platforms have no obligation to allow an individual to open their mouth in the first place or to allow them to keep talking for the time to come.

Where libraries stand on digital censorship

It should go without saying that librarians stand against this sort of informational capriciousness. The Library Bill of Rights states that library’s “should challenge censorship” wherever they find it. Further, it says librarians resist “the abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” Even though libraries don’t provide the information on these platforms outside of our internet connections and accessible computers, it is still part of our commitment to the intellectual freedom. Our goal continues to be to advocate for policies, both governmental and corporate, that protect speech in all its forms, no matter who it comes from and no matter what it contains. With so much content, information, and knowledge being digital only, the advocacy of all librarians must keep pace.


John “Mack” Freeman is the Marketing and Programming Coordinator for the West Georgia Regional Library. He is a past recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Conable Scholarship, and a 2015 ALA Emerging Leader.

One thought on “Censorship and the terms of service

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.