The simplistic this-is-x’s-blog-he-can-do-whatever-he-likes argument for allowing arbitrary censorship
As the regular reader of this blog is bound to have noticed, I consider undue censorship to be one of the worst problems in various forums of debate, including the blogosphere as the possibly paramount example outside of dictatorships. This is a topic that I will try to avoid in the future, with little more to say that would not merely be re-hashing and re-stating. (Not to mention boring to my readers…)
However, today is an exception for two reasons:
The beginning and announcement of a second blog
This blog will serve as a channel for independent publishing of such censored (or otherwise lost) comments that have previously occasionally been published on my main blog. This will reduce the information-to-noise ratio here for the readers and make my job as the writer somewhat easier. For obvious reasons, the entries will be of limited interest to others, except in as far as they are interested in the discussion where the comment originally belonged.
There is one aspect of the censorship issue that I have left unaddressed for far too long: The simplistic this-is-x’s-blog-he-can-do-whatever-he-likes argument for allowing arbitrary censorship (as opposed to censoring e.g. spam), most notably comments that express dissent. The rest of this entry will deal with this topic.
This argument is superficially plausible and is often the first stop for people who have just dropped in on the topic without any greater experience and depth of thought in the area. It is also fundamentally flawed and a proof of this lack of insight. No further right to censor can reasonable be inferred beyond cases already legitimate (most notably spam; however, e.g. violations of a blogs policy concerning profanity, but not opinion!, can be legitimate). Notably, blog-ownership is not always analogous to more conventional forms of ownership.
There is no automatic connection between blog ownership and right to moderate or censor: That the comments fall within the technical purview of the blog owner is not a question of ethical right, but of technical almost-necessity (stand-alone blog) and convenience/laziness of the blog provider (for e.g. the central WordPress or Blogger sites). In the latter case, it would be just as plausible to have the comments centrally moderated by WordPress employees without involvement of the blog owners—the main reason why it is not, is simply that this would be too resource intensive. (A secondary reason is that blog owners will be somewhat more likely to prefer a platform where they do have control. This too is a question of pragmaticism, not divine right.) Alternatively, if Google’s (now discontinued) Sidewiki had been around ten or fifteen years earlier, it is quite possible that blogs never would have had an internal comment function, with everyone using Sidewiki instead. Even today there is theoretically nothing preventing third parties from providing their own comment implementations and comment contents independently. That they do not is simply a result of the opportunity advantage of the built-in comment functions: Most surfers will simply not bother to look for the alternatives, instead opting to use the immediately available built-in functions, partly for convenience, partly through the vicious circle of fewer comments and commenters, less reach of own comments, fewer comments and commenters, …
Owning a blog does not make one owner of the comments. These remain the intellectual creation and typically the intellectual property of the commenter. Correspondingly, distortions of content, disemvoweling, and most cases of partial censorship are unacceptable outright. This applies in particular when the alterations can give other people a faulty impression of the commenter or where they lose the ability to form any other opinion than that dictated by the censor (including cases where a piece of the text is replaced by e.g. “sexist content removed”—in particular, considering that most accusations of sexism, racism, whatnot, tend to be unfounded). A complete removal is not affected by the preceding, but some concern should be given to the risk of disallowing the commenter access to his own comment.
Even where a completely free right to speech is not present, there still remains the right to fair treatment. If, for instance, the blog owner or a sycophant has just delivered a scathing attack on the commenter, then the latter must be allowed to defend himself; if his position has been dishonestly misrepresented or honestly misunderstood, he must be given the right to clarify; if arguments are presented against his position, he must be given the right to give his counter-arguments; and so on. This applies irrespective of blog ownership and irrespective of factors like on/off topic. (However, there are many cases where it can be legitimate to ask two unnecessarily long-winded, off-topic, or disruptive debaters to collectively take their discussion elsewhere. In such cases, they should still be granted the right to post information (e.g. an URL) as to where the remainder of the discussion can be visited (if held publicly).
By analogy, a host who finds a house guest increasingly annoying has all rights to throw him out; however, he must still consider the conscionability and proportionality of any action. If an over-night guest is currently in the shower, he must at a minimum (barring truly exceptional circumstances) be given the right to get dressed before leaving. More typically, he would and should also be granted a reasonable time to pack and make other preparations (where “reasonable” will depend on many factors, including train/flight schedules, how much there is to pack, and the length of the stay), the opportunity to call for a taxi or other transport, and other actions that may be appropriate.
Depending on the circumstances, the blog owner can have an ethical obligation towards his readers to not cut the discussion short or selectively suppress particular points of view. The step where censoring becomes equivalent to lying is comparatively easy to reach. In extreme cases, the area of fraud (in the legal sense) can be reached.
Finally, even if we grant the right, in theory, to do so something, it does not follow that one should do so in practice. It is perfectly legal to, say, dump an SO per text message, buy a Monet and set fire to it, or eat four Big Mac meals a day for twenty years. Should one actually do so? No. Is there anything wrong with calling those who do idiots? No. (This barring some very special set of circumstances making the respective specific example acceptable.)
In addition previous and more general discussions of censorship apply—including that the vast majority of cases I have encountered (be it as the censored party or as an observer) have had the intellectually dishonest intent of silencing dissent. Further, irrespective of right and wrong, the blog owner who fails to listen to his commenters loses an opportunity to learn something—and, indeed, censors tend to be found among those who have the most to learn, show the greatest prejudice, or are otherwise the most in need of other perspectives.