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We are invoking freedom of speech in that we as editors are stating what our Jeeves-worldviews are. We are creating what is a morally acceptable view of the world. -- Steve Berkowitz, president of the Ask Jeeves Website company

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The Washington Post

Sunday, November 18, 2001


Screening Free Speech? Online Companies Draw Fire for Removing 'Offensive' Postings

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer

YAHOO's message boards are erupting with the kind of free-flowing, impassioned discussions the Internet's creators always dreamed of, with postings about practically every aspect of the hunt for terrorists, the capture of Kabul and mysterious plane crashes.

But what's also revealing is what is being deleted.

Gone are some gloating messages that say America deserved the attacks. Gone are some links to extremist sites promoting a jihad, or holy war, against the Western world. Gone too is a sarcastic note posted by college student Usman Sheikh:

"America succesfully [sic] attacks terrorists, pinpoint smart bombing," the note began, linking to pictures of bloody children who were hurt or killed as a result of the recent military raids.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based online company, which runs the most popular destination on the World Wide Web, removed the note soon after it was posted, drawing applause from those who say they're happy to see that the Internet is finally getting a conscience. But others worry about what such censorship by the likes of America Online, MSN and Lycos means for a medium widely regarded as a haven for free speech and openness.

"The Western media and politicians keep talking about their freedom of speech, freedom of expression and how they are against the censoring of different views . . . yet they are no different from any oppressive Third World country or any dictatorship," Sheikh, 20, said in an interview.

While many perceive the Internet as a public sidewalk where people are protected by federal law, it really operates more like a collection of private buildings run by for-profit businesses that have the legal right to screen their content as they please.

People who come to the Web sites must obey the companies' "terms of service" agreements, which are in their simplest terms long lists of legally binding do's and don'ts.

Yahoo and other companies use similar language to prohibit the posting of anything that's "unlawful, harmful, threatening,abusive, harassing, tortious, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable."

In the past, "we would err on the side of 'If it's distasteful, let it stay,' " said Stephen Killeen, president of Terra Lycos U.S. "Now, we err on the side of 'If you want to post this kind of information, you don't have to do it here.' "

"The sentiment in the United States changed on September 11 about what's acceptable and what's not in terms of what you can say," Killeen explained.

The information being taken off the Internet represents only a tiny portion of what's out there. People are free to set up Web sites and independently post what they want -- with little to fear. The large Internet companies themselves sponsor hundreds if not thousands of chat rooms or message boards where anyone can publish their two cents' worth on a subject. So much is written that it is virtually impossible for companies to review everything that might appear on their sites, so they typically rely on people to complain first.

The online companies' responsibility for censoring material has been questioned repeatedly in court. Under federal law, the companies do not enjoy a blanket exemption from liability as telephone companies do for conversations that are carried over their wires. But the courts generally have not held the online firms responsible. In one pivotal case earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a mother who tried to stop the distribution of nude pictures of her son on America Online could not sue the service provider for a subscriber's actions. The family is seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review of that decision.

Regardless of their legal standing, some worry that the Internet companies are moving more aggressively in recent weeks to screen content on their sites.

"In times of war, there has been a willingness among Americans to give up some rights -- to honor curfews, martial law and even restrictions on speech . . . The filtering of Internet message boards is part of all this," said Stuart Biegel, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in law and cyberspace.

Some say Internet companies are screening material with a double standard -- supporting patriotic messages while frowning on those that criticize the government's actions. In some cases, people say, anti-U.S. or anti-Israeli messages appear to be deleted faster and more frequently than anti-Arab posts.

Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said some Internet companies have been slow to respond to concerns expressed by Muslims.

"We have had several cases reported to us of postings by people with Arab-sounding names being taken down because they expressed a different point of view. Likewise, we've been told of harassing messages against people of Arab descent not being taken down," she said.

Yahoo has deleted a note calling someone a "zionist israeli scum bag." But another message -- "Muslims are against the jews because muslims are too greedy. They want to take israel's teeny weeny land. That's how greedy and parasitic these muslims are. America should wipe them all out." -- has remained up for weeks despite several complaints lodged by users and copied to The Washington Post.

Postings by "heil_bush" appear to have been taken down while those by "mad_muhammed," "burn_islam" and "endless_flood_of_islamic_blood" remain online.

Shiekh, who has been frequenting the Yahoo message boards for two years, said he understands why a site might take down instructions for making a bomb or erase a posting that might endanger national security. But he said people's opinions should not be censored.

Earlier this month, he tried four times to post variations of his message about children being injured in the U.S. raids but each one was deleted within a few hours. He's also complained to Yahoo repeatedly about messages that he says express anti-Arab sentiment, only to get a form letter in return thanking him for his input.

If the company can be so aggressive about taking down his messages, he said, "surely Yahoo can do much, much more to take action against the numerous hatemongers and racists we have plaguing the Islamic [message] boards making racist posts everyday and using all the filth at their disposal."

Shiekh said such bias is probably more subconscious than deliberate. The result, though, is that it fails to distinguish between terrorists and law-abiding Muslims.

"We are not big fans of U.S. foreign policy," he said of himself and some of his online friends, "but you bet we condemn this terrorist act and all terrorist acts."

Yahoo spokeswoman Nicki Dugan said the company does not actively police its boards but simply responds to complaints from users and removes material at the discretion of the team of screeners. Each complaint is evaluated individually, she added, and action is taken within 24 hours.

"We're straddling the fine line between enabling people to communicate freely and preventing people from posting things that are unlawful or harmful in any way," she said.

Indeed, some complain that Yahoo doesn't do enough to police its site. In a note posted on a financial message board this week, one person called on the online service and the FBI to be more vigilant. "Can you please explain why . . . some anti-American [expletive] on this board has not been sniffed out and snuffed out yet?" the correspondent wrote. Another protested: "I can't believe that Yahoo lets [people post] anti-American celebrations."

A 36-year-old businessman who goes by the online alias "spiderrico" said he has been shocked by some messages he's read on Yahoo that say America should blame itself for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He said he is conflicted about how Yahoo should deal with the authors.

"I know freedom of speech is important, but at a time like this I don't want to read messages sympathizing with the terrorists," he said in an interview.

It's not just online postings that get censored. Another company, Verisign Inc., which is responsible for maintaining part of the Internet's addressing system, has announced it will no longer allow people to resell names that refer to the attacks. Auction house eBay has banned the sale of memorabilia related to the devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon except in the cases where the items are "described in a positive and commemorative way" and if all the proceeds go to charity.

Even such search engines have revised their responses.

When people type in "How do I build a bomb?" at the Ask Jeeves site, they are presented with a list of links, the first one being "Where can I find the latest news on the national tragedy?"

If they ask "What's Islam?," among the responses is a note that says the religion does not condone terrorism. And when people ask about race and the Sept. 11 attacks, they'll get links about hate crimes and the law.

"We are invoking freedom of speech in that we as editors are stating what our Jworldviews are," said Steve Berkowitz, president of AskJeeves Web properties. "We are creating what is a morally acceptable view of the world."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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