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Prodigy Stumbles… Again

On some days, Prodigy representatives tell us they’re running "the Disney Channel of online services." On other days the service is touted as a forum for "the free expression of ideas." But management has missed the conflict between these two missions. And it is just this unperceived conflict that has led the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League to launch a protest against the online service..

On one level, the controversy stems from Prodigy’s decision to censor messages responding to claims that, among other things, the Holocaust never took place. These messages – which included such statements as "Hitler had some valid points" and that "wherever Jews exercise influence and power, misery, warfare and economic exploitation … follow" – were the sort likely to stir up indignant responses among Jews and non-Jews alike. But some Prodigy members have complained to the ADL that when they tried to respond to both the overt content of these messages and their implicit anti-Semitism, their responses were rejected by Prodigy’s staff of censors.

The rationale for the censorship? Prodigy has a policy of barring messages directed at other members, but allows messages that condemn a group. The result of this policy, mechanically applied, is that one member can post a message saying that "pogroms, ‘persecutions,’ and the mythical holocaust" are things that Jews "so very richly deserve." But another member might be barred from posting something like "Member A’s comments are viciously anti-Semitic." It is no wonder that the Anti-Defamation League is upset at what looks very much like unequal treatment.

But the problem exposed by this controversy is broader than simply a badly crafted policy. The problem is that Prodigy, while insisting on its Disney Channel metaphor, also gives lip service to the notion of a public forum. Henry Heilbrunn, a senior vice president of Prodigy, refers in the Wall Street Journal to the service’s "policy of free expression," while Bruce Thurlby, Prodigy’s manager of editorial business and operations, invokes in a letter to ADL "the right of individuals to express opinions that are contrary to personal standards or individual beliefs."

Yet it is impossible in any free-expression policy to explain both the allowing of those anti-Semitic postings and the barring of responses to those postings from outraged and offended members. Historically, this country has embraced the principle that best cure for offensive or disturbing speech is more speech. No regime of censorship – even of the most neutral and well-meaning kind – can avoid the kind of result that appears in this case: some people get to speak while others get no chance to reply. So long as a board of censors is in place, Prodigy is no public forum.

Thus, the service is left in a double bind. If Prodigy really means to be taken as a computer-network version of "the Disney Channel" – with all the content control that this metaphor implies – then it’s taking responsibility for (and, to some members, even seeming to endorse) the anti-Semitic messages that were posted. On the other hand, if Prodigy really regards itself as a forum for free expression, it has no business refusing to allow members to respond to what they saw as lies, distortions, and hate.

So, what’s the fix for Prodigy? Rather than choosing to refine and tighten its censorship policy, as Prodigy management has recently done in response to the ADL complaints, a better answer may lie in replacing the service’s censors with a system of "conference hosts" of the sort one sees on CompuServe or on the WELL. As WELL manager Cliff Figallo conceives of his service, the management is like an apartment manager who normally allows tenants to do what they want, but who steps in if they do something outrageously disruptive. Hosts on the WELL normally steer discussions rather than censoring them.

But even if Prodigy doesn’t adopt a "conference host" system, it ultimately will satisfy its members better if it does allow a true forum for free expression. And the service may be moving in that direction already: Heilbrunn is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that Prodigy has been loosening its content restrictions over the past month. Good news, but not good enough – merely easing some content restrictions is likely to be no more successful at solving Prodigy’s problems than Gorbachev’s easing market restrictions was at solving the Soviet Union’s problems. The best solution is to allow what Oliver Wendell Holmes called "the marketplace of ideas" to flourish – to get out of the censorship business.

Mike Godwin is the staff counsel for The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF has been established to help civilize the electronic frontier; to make it truly useful and beneficial to everyone, not just an elite; and to do this in a way that is in keeping with our society’s highest traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication. A recent graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Mike coordinates the ongoing legal work of the EFF. Previously he served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan student newspaper. He has been a frequent contributor to the discussions of computing and civil liberties on the net.

Information from:
Mike Godwin — [email protected]

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