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Rights & Privileges

By Brian | June 24, 2005 | Share on Facebook

Yahoo has shut down their chat rooms due to complaints from some of their advertisers that they were being used for promote sex with minors. Privacy advocates have jumped all over it:

“This is a real overreaction on the part of Yahoo,” Annalee Newitz, policy analyst for the EFF, said. “To just unilaterally shut down chat rooms is really chilling to free speech.”

I wonder how, exactly, not having access to Yahoo chat rooms limits your right to free speech. Yahoo is a corporation providing a service, not a public utility. If they choose to stop offering that service (for whatever reason), don’t they have the right to do that? Or are Yahoo chat rooms now essential to our right to express ourselves? Were we living in a fascist state before Yahoo was created and just didn’t know it? What about the hundreds of other chat room services that still exist on the Internet? Don’t they take up the slack?

Many folks, particularly those who have branded themselves “professional advocates,” seem very willing to blur the line between rights and privileges. A right is guaranteed by law and cannot be taken away without prosecution (or at the very least, public outcry). A privilege is guaranteed only by a contract between two parties (express or implied) and can be taken away based on the terms of that contract. When you use Yahoo’s services, you agree to a “Terms of Service” contract. You are granted the privilege of using Yahoo’s service (in this case, free of charge) in exchange for granting them the privilege of showing you their advertisers’ messages. Yahoo takes a risk that everyone will suddenly stop using the service and they’ll have to return their advertisers money. You take a risk that Yahoo will decide to get out of the chat room business, leaving you with no place to discuss Tom Cruise’s love life (sorry, cheap shot).

We have the right to free speech. We do not have the right to Yahoo Chat Rooms. Claiming that we do only decreases the signal-to-noise ratio in this area, making it less likely that an actual rights violation will be taken seriously.

UPDATE: Other advocacy groups are praising Yahoo’s decision:

“The specific reason for the closure not withstanding, this is a positive a step in the online fight against child exploitation,” said Michelle Collins, director of the exploited children unit at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va.

Ms. Collins makes a good point. I wonder which Ms. Newitz of the EFF (see above) would consider more important: chilling the right to free speech or preventing child exploitation? Tough call, I guess, especially when you make your living defending free speech…

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