Is American Influence Making the Internet Prudish?

An op-ed in The Register poses an interesting and contentious question: is American moral conservatism ruining the internet? Is the American prudish aversion to nudity, explicit language, sexual deviance, drugs—at least in public—stifling the rest of the world?

Jane Fae Ozimek wants us to consider whether the internet is too prudish because of the moral handwringing of the American corporations that dominate it. And I do mean dominate. As TechCrunch's Paul Carr points out, "America is home to the vast majority of the largest sites in the western world." And it's true—Facebook, Google, MySpace, AIM—these are all apple pie-munching sons of liberty. As well, the US, as a point of occasional controversy, owns the internet in some sense, via control of ICANN. (Though let's not allow anyone to get too prideful—the Swiss created the Web as we know it, of course).

But strong American influence of the internet is undeniable. So what is Ozimek's beef? Facebook, to begin with, cracks down on sexually explicit groups, and prohibits women from sharing topless photos of themselves. Ozimek's cites the shuttering of risqué Facebook fashion group "Fetish Rocks." Ozimek also points to Facebook's briefly controversial decision to block pro-marijuana advertising on the site. The site advertisement in question ran afoul of Facebook's censors based on its marijuana leaf imagery, and was, despite a great deal of popular support for the Californian ballot effort in question, proved too radical for Facebook's own advertising interests.

And advertising interests are really what this is all about. Now, true, Facebook is not the United States. Facebook is a company. Google is a company. Companies want to make as much money as possible. If a company thinks something might offend someone who might give that company money, it will not do it. It's as simple as this. Marketing pandering is neither new nor an American value—it's a global economic reality. But American owned companies, by virtue of the fact that they are so entrenched (through the hundreds of millions of users making daily use of them) in global life, could be turning advertising dollar neurosis into foreign suppression. When Facebook thinks nudity will frighten prudish Americans (and scare off prude-like American dollars), it makes a moral decision for the rest of the world (at least the part that logs in).

Of course, Facebook isn't some fascist regime. They are not coming into your room and deleting the pictures you took of your girlfriend. You are opting in. But by being the biggest, the best, and the most integrated online social interaction in the entire world, they are faced with moral responsibilities as well as financial ones. Allowing pro-pot banner ads might offend some in the US, but might actually put some weigh into Facebook's visions of an interconnected online society—not one walled off between regional definitions of offensive. An open world has to be a tolerant one—so let the fight over what's obscene or not rage in the news feeds, not the ad sales office.

Photo by Michelle Hofstrand