Xbox Live: Defense Against Racism or Free Speech Restriction

3. The Limits of Free Speech

There is, however, one very big question left to ask ourselves. It's the same question we have to ask ourselves when similar issues occur in the real world: does anyone have the right to limit people's ability to speak their mind, even in situations where it clearly benefits society as a whole for that person to just quit speaking? It's not an easily answered question. But, it's a question that is going to be increasingly important in the next few years, and online gaming is where it's going to be answered. Why? Well, because online gaming is where control can be exerted on offenders. It's where someone using a slur can be immediately detected, reported to a nearly omnipotent authority, and silenced without recourse for challenging the sentence. Because, in the end, companies like Microsoft, Valve, and others have more control over their online subscribers than any government has over its population. So, the online forum will be the first place in which these "speech control" technologies become available and become widely used, if said companies choose to use them. The first question that should be asked is, "is this a limit to free speech, and if so, is it a legal limit?" Not easy stuff. The answer rather depends on where you live. In some countries, what you can or can't say is strictly legislated. In others, governments are quite weary of anything that could be perceived as an impediment to free speech. The best way to frame the question seems to be the two countries that are most affected (e.g. have a substantial amount of Xbox Live subscribers), but still fall on diametrically opposed sides of the issue. The two? The United States, whose laws protect the right to use bigoted language (except for in cases of defamation, incitement, or fighting words) and The United Kingdom, whose nations have implemented laws that sentence perpetrators of hate speech to fines and imprisonment. Under the laws of the United Kingdom, the policies suggested by Portnow would be more than acceptable. With free speech limited to non-offensive language, the Public Order Act of 1986 would easily encompass online harassment of players, and even offhanded bigoted comments, as long as both the offender and the offended were within the borders of the greater United Kingdom. However, in the United States, the legality of restrictions made by Xbox are less clear cut. The U.S. Constitution protects even the most hateful speech as a right to the freedom of speech and expression. By those limits, the federal government is incapable (and ethically bound) to make no law which could restrict that right. The question of legality, then comes into blurrier context when we ask, "what can a private company do within their own community?" Well, if you take the fact that at least one private University has banned students for making racist tweets, you could say that pretty much anything could be done within a private community. And, as the NY Daily points out, an employer has the right to fire you for pretty much any reason they wish, including hate speech. In short....Microsoft has pretty much all the legal authority necessary to implement any "anti-harassment technology" they wish within their own system, because it's their damn system and they can do what they want. But do they have the moral authority? That's a question I've been asking myself since I started researching this article. I've seen and heard some absolutely horrific things about anyone and everyone that could be considered different than any other person (that's everyone by the way). I've had more than a few instances in which I was truly and utterly enraged by something I saw, even going so far as to post things on Facebook and Twiiter, which I hate doing. The moral question is not easily answered, and I am not enough of an authority on the subject to make a distinct call, but I can at least offer an opinion. An opinion that I am sure will meet with a substantial amount of disagreement. Despite the consequences of not taking action meaning the unavoidable and inevitable berating of an individual who is perceived to be (or just plain accused of being) something other than a heterosexual white male with a fully functioning penis and large biceps, I still feel that the infringements on free speech are too great a cost to pay for that individual's comfort. It sucks, but it's true. There are millions of different ways to be offended, and it is simply too dangerous to pick and choose under which circumstances a person truly has the freedom to speak their mind. Portnow's suggestions were as mild as they could possibly be, and he is to be highly commended for his efforts, but even those seem to pass a judgement that no one has the right to pass. 1) Automuting - Internal programming automatically detects players whose "muted" rate is exceptionally high, and automatically mutes their output to other players at the beginning of a match. This presumably would filter out folks who get muted often (for acting like pricks) but leave the other players able to un-mute the muted player. - While the process of automuting has no intrinsic judgement in it, it allows a community of players to silence a person in a lasting fashion. For instance, A and B don't like C, so they silence him. Later, C says something offensive and so D and E mute him as well. Well, now he's automuted for the next (let's be generous and guess at) month. What about F-Z? They were never offended by A's remarks. It's entirely possible that they would agree with A completely, even wish to communicate with A. Yes it's possible for them to unmute A, but the precedent has already been established, and A now has stigma, warning other players against communicating with A, despite their not really knowing why. 2) Message Response Counters - This option would detect players who sent an abnormally large number of messages that were not responded to. It would then restrict that player to only messaging friends in the future, under the assumption that unanswered mails are either spam or harassment. - This system sounds great at first, because it block annoying people. But by what right do we get to say annoying people should not be allowed to talk. Sure, everyone has had that thought. But if you are so bloated as to think no one has ever thought the same about you, there is no hope for you. The long and short of it is that "being annoying enough to not respond to" is hardly enough sin to prevent people from speaking at all. 3) Earned Communications - Rather than allowing players to immediately use communication tools, social gaming networks would require players to achieve a certain gamer score, reputation, or other measurement to ensure that their accounts are invested in. Once they had put in the investment, they would then be allowed to communicate directly with others. - Clearly the most restrictive suggestion made. Even Portnow voices in his video that this idea might be a bit excessive. Why? Well, because it essentially tells people that they must earn the right to communicate. Conveys the message that "only X kind of people are worth listening to." By this system, X people would be people who game often, and maintain high gamer scores. Therefore, if you don't game often enough, your voice cannot be heard, even in a room full of people hurling racial slurs at you. You'll also notice that most of the people in the offensive links on the last page had pretty high gamer scores. 4) Clan/Guild Reputations - The idea behind this is quite simple. If you punish the group with which the individual is affiliated (assuming he or she is part of a group) by reducing their reputation points, the other members will pressure the individuals to act more socially acceptable. This, of course, only works in highly social gaming communities. - I personally find this the most offensive strategy for containing unsavory speech, for two reasons. A) It encourages people to judge their peers and pressure each other into "same think" lest they find themselves at a tactical disadvantage. Second, it has little to do with the issue at hand. The bad behavior of an individual could be dropping the N word or knitting without a permit. It's irrelevant. The group would only know that acting outside the bounds of what Microsoft says is nice will result in a penalty, and therefore they will mob on people who do not agree with Microsoft. Also, it may or may not be illegal in the U.S. under the Worker Privacy Act. And I shouldn't have to point it out, but system 1,3, and 4 are held together by the idea that people would not abuse such a system by simply muting everyone, or intentionally giving people bad reputation points. Really, these system offer just as much chance to be used as a new way of trolling by the people they seek to contain. Rather ironic ( I checked, it actually is.) But this is all just my opinion. In the end, the fact of the matter is that every single person who reads this will have their own unique opinion on the matter. And each of those opinions is equally valuable, if not equally sexually attractive as mine. Think whatever you will, but be aware that this issue boils down to two truths: 1) people on the internet say inappropriate, horrible things that are truly unacceptable. And 2) Every person is entitled to speak their mind, no matter how empty it may be.
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Clayton Ofbricks hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.