Censoring Online Comments: The Big Debate Among Website Publishers And Newspapers

Among people who own and run websites, one of the constant debates is this: How should you handle the censoring of online comments? A lot of times, the debate never properly gets off the ground because people start having 1st Amendment debates about the practice. That’s a red herring because the 1st Amendment only protects you from government punishment (such as fine or imprisonment) for voicing unpopular viewpoints, but does not prevent a business from exercising its own rights to get rid of employees that they think will be bad for business (although there are some protections created by The Civil Rights Act of 1964).

This makes sense. If you spent twenty years of your life diligently saving up $250,000 to open your own pizza parlor, you would not be happy to see that the waiter you hired is telling your customers about how much he loved the Soviet leadership during the 1930s. You hired him to serve pizza, cheese bread, soda, and pale ale beers in a bottle, and you probably do not want to see your customers leave and never return because they couldn’t get a pepperoni pizza without hearing your waiter share his thoughts on who he thought was “really responsible” for Sergei Kirov’s death in 1934. As the owner of the pizza den, you get the ownership rights, and by extension, the power to say “Knock it off, buddy, or you’re outta here.”

With websites, the extension of this principle is that you because you pay the ongoing hosting and domain fees, you get to control the content that appears on the site, including the comments. But once you get past the question of legal rights, the much more interesting debate becomes: Recognizing the right of website owners to censor comments, what is the fairest and most intelligent approach to creating a moderation policy?

Because of online anonymity, it is common for posters to say things that are racist, homophobic, graphic, violent in encouraging threats, and so on. There are also things that are annoying but more benign—what do you do if a comment is a giant block of text in entirely caps locks? What do you do if a post on Sam Walton’s approach to creating a negative cash conversion cycle at Wal-Mart inspires a 1,000 word screed about President Obama’s healthcare law? Or better yet, what if it inspires a post about President Obama written in caps locks?

There is an economic angle to this debate as well because website owners and administrators usually choose to consider the effects that their decisions have upon advertisers. For instance, one element that determines the strength of a website is how much time the average user spends on the site—the logic is that the more time people spend on a site, the better the content and the more engaged the reader, and therefore, the site will bring in more advertising bucks. Long, petty arguments are bad for the quality of discourse, but are good for increasing reader engagement and the time spent on the site.

On the other hand, you don’t want to run a website that looks like a huge graffiti wall. That can be off-putting to readers, and drive them away. That would lead to lower site traffic, and that would lead to lower ad revenue.

None of this was an issue in the old days with traditional publishing. In the old days, it was all about circulation: if you got 150,000 copies of your paper out there, you were doing better than the paper that got 50,000 copies out there (unless there was a huge difference in demographics).

Now, there is more to the story. To secure advertising dollars for your site, you have to take into account “reader engagement” and the quality of comments and the time spent on the site is a key ingredient in that calculation. It’s not really about free speech. It’s about whether you want to create a rough-and-tumble atmosphere that follows “free speech” and increases the time spent on site figures and improves the reader engagement metrics. Other websites heavily censor in the name of civility and benefit by perhaps ranking higher in search results because their comments are not filled with caps locks, violent threats, and long-winded rants. The economic consequences of these decisions are fascinating, and if I owned stock in something like the New York Times or AOL (which I will never will), these are the kinds of things I’d monitor closely.