By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, OCT. 2, 2011 (Zenit.org).- A report commissioned by the Virginia-based National Religious Broadcasters has revealed substantial problems in the way new media communications platforms treat religion.
Titled “True Liberty in a New Media Age: An Examination of the Threat of Anti-Christian Censorship and Other Viewpoint Discrimination on New Media Platforms,” the report looked at many of the leading companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter.
NRB is a non-partisan, international association of Christian communicators according to a description of its mission on its Web site.
While it is true that the new means of communications made possible by the Internet have opened up many possibilities for the exchange of ideas and opinions, at the same time the report expressed concern that a small number of large companies have a lot of control of this industry.
When it comes to religion the report saw real problems. “Our conclusion is that Christian ideas and other religious content face a clear and present danger of censorship on Web-based communication platforms,” it stated.
The study revealed a number of ways in which the policies of the new media giants affected religion.
Some of the companies have already banned Christian content, while others have established guidelines that will very probably lead to censorship in the future, the report affirmed. On two occasions Apple has blocked Christian apps on the iTunes App Store due to the religious content.
In fact, the only apps that Apple has blocked due to the views expressed in them are ones that reflect Christian views, according to the report.
In November of 2010, Apple revoked its approval of the Manhattan Declaration App. This declaration was a statement of Christian beliefs about marriage, the sanctity of life and religious liberty. The reason given was that one of the points in the declaration was that homosexual conduct is immoral and this, in Apple’s view, was offensive.
Later, in March 2011, Apple also censored the app for Exodus International, a Christian ministry that helps people to leave the homosexual lifestyle. Once again Apple declared that this was offensive and violated its guidelines.
Then, in July 2011, Apple pulled iTunes out of the Christian Values Network, a portal that contributes funds to charities. The report said that this action was caused by complaints that some of the charities had policies critical of homosexual rights initiatives.
In general, the report concluded that several of Apple’s policies for its apps are broad and vague, as well as being in some cases censorious on the subject of religion. When it comes to satire, humor or political commentary the norms are quite different, giving wide latitude to content.
For example, its guidelines on religion define content should be prohibited if it is “offensive, mean-spirited” or if it contains material that has “abuse,” or is “inappropriate” or “unacceptable.” Using such fuzzy terms means that Apple has very wide discretion to determine which religious ideas they prefer and which they will censor, the report pointed out.
There is no doubt, the report concluded, that Apple’s policies on religious content would be found “extraordinarily wanting” if they were matched up against the standards for free speech that the Supreme Court has established under the First Amendment.
Turning to Google the report noted that it refused to place a Christian pro-life advertisement from the Christian Institute on its search engine. The ad was refused on the grounds that Google’s “policy did not permit the advertisement of Web sites that contain abortion and religion-related content.”
The Christian Institute then took Google to court and as a result the ad was allowed and Google changed its policy to allow ads on abortion from religious groups so long as they are framed in a factual way.
Google’s policy is still, however, to block any ad on abortion that contains the phrase “abortion is murder,” as this is deemed to be “gruesome.”
Another problem outlined by the report related to Google’s guidelines for its Web tools available for non-profit groups. The free or discounted use of these tools is not allowed for churches, faith groups, or organizations that take religion or sexual orientation into account in hiring employees. According to the report Christian churches who have applied to Google for non-profit status are being rejected.
A further case involving Google was related to a Norwegian site that contained criticism of Scientology. Lawyers representing Scientology protested to Google that the site contained copyrighted content. As a result the pages of the critical site were removed from Google’s index.
The NRB report said that this action was troubling as there are a number of Christian groups that expose religious movements for their lack of fidelity to the Bible. In order to do so they need to quote from the original sources. Copyright law allows the fair use of material for reporting and criticism, so Google’s approach could unjustly block legitimate Christian groups from engaging in criticism of what they consider to be false teachings.
Google also showed itself willing, during the time it operated in China through a local version of its Web site, to cooperate with the government in blacklisting words from its search engine relating to the Falun Gong religious group and the Dalai Lama.
The report concluded its section on Google by quoting testimony from Scott Cleland, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Information and Communication Policy, who has stated that “Google rejects traditional Judeo-Christian values.”
Facebook is also guilty of censorship according to the report. It has a policy of erasing anti-homosexual comments from its site and has partnerships with some organizations that promote the homosexual agenda.
Another example in the report was the case of how Facebook removed a posting of a photo of two men kissing. This decision was quickly reversed and Facebook made an apology. By contrast in other cases of photos involving sexual depictions unrelated to homosexuality the material has been permanently removed.
With the exception of Twitter the policies of the main Web-based platforms have very loose definitions of what they regard as hate speech, which the report criticizes as being a danger to free speech. Facebook, for example, prohibits “Inflammatory religious content; Politically religious agendas.”
Quoting from the Google guidelines, the report said that it defines hate speech in the following way. “By this, we mean content that promotes hate … towards groups based on …religion … or sexual orientation/gender identity.
Google’s rules also block advertising content that is critical of groups for their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. The report pointed out that this eliminates ads by Christian pro-family groups that oppose what some homosexual advocacy groups are doing to promote the legalization of same-sex marriage. It also means that criticism of other religions or sects as being theologically wrong would violate Google’s policy.
The report went on to identify similar problems with other new media organizations, such as MySpace, which also has very broad and ill-defined policies when it comes to hate speech and homosexuality.
The Internet service providers Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon also violate free speech and their rules would allow censorship of Christian content, according to the report.
The report finished with a plea to these companies to change their policies so as to guarantee free speech and also to renounce censorship of lawful Christian viewpoints. A plea that we can only hope will not fall on deaf ears.