The news has been filled with the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and others misusing their customer’s private data, censoring speech and outright banning users with whom the company ‘gatekeepers’ disagree. As of May 1, add to that list Microsoft. The software giant will begin cracking down on what people say while using Microsoft services online. According to a new services agreement written by the company, the tech company is planning to ban accounts that use “offensive language” and will even go through your private data, without your permission and with little recourse, to “investigate” users.
In a March 1 release, Microsoft is warning customers using Office, Xbox, Skype, and other products that the company is prohibiting offensive language and inappropriate content starting on May 1. For the most part, the effort seems laudable: “Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity),” Microsoft warns in a portion of their new codes of conduct.
The kicker is that “offensive language” part. Microsoft also added that the company plans on “investigating” users who are accused of violating the new policy and will block content from being sent to other people. “When investigating alleged violations of these terms, Microsoft reserves the right to review your content in order to resolve the issue,” the new policy states.
Internet privacy and civil rights advocates are already speaking out against the Microsoft service agreement; calling the upcoming policy an attack on free speech. “Offensive language is fairly vague. Offensive to whom? What my granny might find offensive and what I might find offensive could be vastly different,” Ms. Smith of CSO Online wrote.
It also puts into question how Microsoft would respond when someone is offended by Biblical passages or sermons about homosexuality, infidelity, other sins or even salvation. The Bible is “offensive” to many people. Would sermons shared or saved to the Microsoft cloud then be illegal?
Civil rights activist and law student Jonathan Corbett added that Microsoft’s May 1 agreement is just an excuse to police people’s behavior, even in private. “If I call someone a mean name in Xbox Live, not only will they cancel my account, but also confiscate any funds I’ve deposited in my account?” Corbett questions in a blog post.
Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argues that Microsoft’s hard-line policy stems from Congress passing two new sex trafficking bills. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA) holds platforms responsible for users’ speech, illegally shared content, and anything connected to sex trafficking.
EFF claims SESTA/FOSTA “silences online speech by forcing Internet platforms to censor their users.” The Department of Justice has also warned that the bills raise “serious constitutional concern.”
While stopping their platforms from hosting pornography or criminal activity, Microsoft may have opened a can of free speech worms that throws criminals in with individuals uploading passages of the bible. That can of worms may be difficult to close.