Tobold's Blog
Friday, December 12, 2014
 
Free speech and censorship

One Book Shelf is a company that allows indie tabletop game developers to self-publish their games as digital downloads. Somebody tried to self-publish the "Gamergate Card Game" there. Somebody else objected. One Book Shelf decided to pull the plug on that game. Some people are enraged about censorship. A different outrage about censorship recently occurred when two retailers in Australia refused to sell Grand Theft Auto V in their stores. So this might be a good moment to discuss freedom of speech and censorship.

First of all, freedom of speech is never absolute. In the United States of America, which have a strong constitutional protection of free speech in the first amendment, there is a long list of exceptions to freedom of speech recognized by the Supreme Court. Sorry Gamergaters, your death threats to women in gaming are not protected as free speech. The law recognizes that some forms of speech are likely to do so much harm, that it is better to not protect them.

But in the above cases the situation is a very different one. You could say that there is a clash of two different sides right of freedom of speech. If I owned a book shop for example, specialized in political books, I would be perfectly in my rights of freedom of speech to only carry books whose political opinions I agreed with. I would be perfectly in my rights to not sell books whose political opinions I disagree with. If I ran "The Capitalist Book Store", nobody could force me to sell Thomas Piketty's "Capital", or the version from Karl Marx.

Note that this isn't the same as a whole country banning a specific book. You can buy Grand Theft Auto V in Australia. GTA5 has not been "censored" or banned in Australia. There are just some shops which have decided that it would be better for their business not to sell this particular video game. That is a business decision, and a private business has every right to make decisions like that. If you would somehow put laws into place by which you could force a store to sell specific games, that law would effectively be censorship in itself, and hurt the right to freedom of speech of the business in question.

And it does not matter if the business making that sort of decision has a huge market share, and selling a product by different channels would be far more difficult. Steam can ban a game if the game's developers makes death threats to Gabe Newell. Yes, that makes it much more difficult to get hold of that game, but it still isn't censorship. It probably works as a business decision for Steam pour encourager les autres. Nobody is preventing the "Gamergate Card Game" to be published elsewhere, it is just one business that decided not to sell that product.

In short, your liberty to swing your fist ends where the next person's nose begins.

Comments:
Excellent post all around. My one quibble would be that I would still call it censorship, just not by a government. In English at least it is possible for entities other than governments to censor something.
 
I would argue that monopolies and utilities lose the right to choose what they will and will not distribute and even some control over pricing.

When there is a lack of alternative distribution channels, any decision to withhold a product impinges on the rights of the customer to have access to an otherwise legal product.
 
I would argue that none of the companies I mentioned in my post are monopolies. Even if the market share of Steam in game digital distribution is huge, it isn't a monopoly. Target doesn't have a monopoly in Australia or elsewhere. One Book Shelf doesn't have a monopoly.

I don't even think that you could get Apple with your monopoly clause, even if it is obviously bloody difficult to get a program onto your iPad that Apple doesn't want in its app store. To the best of my knowledge Apple is free to permit or ban any piece of software they like on their store.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
This sort of falls into one of those typical free speech categories where somebody confuses their right to speech, something they may well possess, with a right to be free from criticism based on their speech, which is not a right at all.

Speech comes with consequences. Lots of people think they ought to be able to say any looney thing that comes to mind, but get all bent out of shape when people call them out on it. Welcome to the marketplace of ideas where nobody is obligated to buy what you're selling.
 
I too agree in the main, but a few points:

* Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to say anything. It's about freedom to express opinions, and especially to criticise cultural and political norms . What's actually under question in both these examples the way I would use the terms, anyway, is not freedom of speech, but freedom of expression (or artistic freedom). GTAV is not an opinion; it's a work of art.

> it does not matter if the business making that sort of decision has a huge market share

I don't actually agree here. I'm totally with you that in general one private channel deciding not to make a work of art or opinion available is not censorship. But I think if channels have total or near monopolies then that's no longer true, and such channels have a special responsibility to try to avoid censorship. If the issue were one of freedom of speech, anyway. I regard freedom of expression as less fundamental than freedom of speech, and I certainly wouldn't object to Steam deciding not to carry a particular game for any reason.
 
I'm not at all sure you're correct about individual retailers having an absolute right to choose what they stock. In jurisdictions that have discrimination legislation it's possible that a store choosing not to stock any work by specifically protected groups might be asked questions by the relevant authorities. It's not quite on the level of hotels and guesthouses who try to resist accommodating certain categories of guests, something that reaches the courts not infrequently where I live, but I think it could be something the courts might be asked to adjudicate on.
 
Bhagpuss, there is a difference between books and people. A private enterprise however big can decide what kind of products they sell, and if they don't like a certain author (or carpenter or beerbrewer) of course they also have the right not to sell their products.

But of course they can't without a reason in the behaviour of said author or carpenter prevent these people from shopping there.
 
I think more, not less, leeway is given to businesses in what products they choose to sell versus whom they can choose to serve as clients. Businesses and their owners have freedom of speech/expression, too. No one, in the US at least, would dream of forcing stores to carry items they deem inappropriate, even if they have carried similar products in the past, even if the product is made by members of an otherwise protected group, and no matter how big a market share they possess, up to and including industries that are considered utilities.
 
Tobold,

If this was a case where the company itself made the decision to pull the game, this wouldnt even be an issue. But they didn't, rather it was pulled in reaction to "someone else" making an objection to the card game, effectively coercing the company into making a very political and knee-jerk reaction, rendering it almost certain to fall under the scope of competition or antitrust law.

Especially after considering the following...

OBS sent an e-mail where the following was stated: "Similarly, no matter how one feels about Gamergate, it is likewise too current, too emotionally frought, and too related to violence to be an appropriate subject for satire. Additionally, we considered that the violent element of the Gamergate issue has a basis in misogyny."

Really? This coming from a company where titles such as "Crack Whore" and "Prison Bitch" are connected to same said company? I'd say that their current and past business dealings have established enough of a history to cause anyone to throw the bullsh** flag on such a statement.

So, yeah...this is the Politically Correct form of censorship. That is, it will be until gamergate dies down and is no longer relevant to popular culture. Much like the Crack Whores of the 80's, I suspect. (sigh)
 
@Chris: I would assume that the large majority of decisions not to sell a product are of the "politically correct" type. If Walmart doesn't sell porn it isn't because they believe that it wouldn't profitably sell. They believe they would turn off more customers than it would earn them. Sometimes the company comes to that decision by themselves, sometimes it takes a consumer protest to get there, like in the GTA5 at Target case.
 
Thanks for linking to my post. Like Chris said above, the issue here is that it's fairly evident that Onebookshelf would not have pulled the card game if Evil Hat hadn't raised a stink....and even if they honestly did not base the decision on Evil Hat's pressure as their letter to the publishers suggested, then that actually makes the action worse, because they have chosen to cherry pick what they are restricting in their store. As I mentioned in my blog, if they had a policy standard in place for what content was acceptable on the store, this would make sense; instead they are basing this on a specific topical product which would have fallen into as much obscurity as all the other equally offensive...often much more so....products on their site. As I see it, they either need to establish consistency or they need to stick to their open door policy for products.

Censorship comes in many forms and flavors, and what we're talking about here isn't particularly of the legal or constitutional variety: but as a retailer consistency is important. Onebookshelf sells PDFs which much more offensive content than the game in question; how can they justify selling one offensive product and not another?

As for Evil Hat and any other voices upset about the card game: I can't believe that the anti-GG crowd hasn't figured out by now that the GGers are their own worst enemy. Give them a platform anytime, they will talk themselves into a corner with alarming consistency, and amazing obliviousness to their own hypocrisy.

I can tell you this much: when it comes to the SJW vs. GG controversy, I'm siding with the group that doesn't attempt to silence the other side. So far they're both batting zero for zero.
 
@Tobold: re your comment to Chris, the thing is Walmart has a policy against selling pornography and certain other mature content. They are consistent and clear about this, and even when something bubbles up (like an M 17+ videogame that sneaks by) they are known to take action to remove the product from shelves. No one is generally confused about Walmart's policy. What Onebookshelf did has not opened a can of worms, suggesting that their policy is to ban anything that someone with enough clout to matter can raise a stink about. As someone who runs a small business myself can safely say, that's probably the worst scenario you can put yourself into.

No matter how you look at it, this was absolutely a win for the Gamergate Card Game. if this hadn't happened, no one would know or care it existed.
 
Not stocking the most successfull entertainment product in history isn't censorship, it's just stupid.
 
re your comment to Chris, the thing is Walmart has a policy against selling pornography and certain other mature content.
They are consistent and clear about this, and even when something bubbles up (like an M 17+ videogame that sneaks by) they are known to take action to remove the product from shelves.


They're able to do that because there are ratings boards that define which videogames get a "M 17+" rating. But that's just delegating the decision; it's always possible to argue about which products deserve which ratings.

So the decisions are going to subjective, but that doesn't mean they're always going to be difficult. Suppose Wal-Mart is selling a book called, "The Way Things Work", and somebody opens it and says, "Hey! This is just a word-for-word copy of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' except with a different cover!" Wal-mart is going to stop selling it pretty quickly, even if they can't point to a specific line in their policy statement that forbids it.

Selling controversial products is one thing, but pandering to hate groups is something else and most businesses just don't want to be perceived as doing that.

What Onebookshelf did has not opened a can of worms, suggesting that their policy is to ban anything that someone with enough clout to matter can raise a stink about. As someone who runs a small business myself can safely say, that's probably the worst scenario you can put yourself into.

Does your small business sell "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (or whatever the corresponding thing is in your industry)? If not, is this a written policy? Or is it just kind of taken for granted because it's so obvious?
 
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