The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

Authors Locked Out of Files Because of Their Ideological Content?


Today's post by Prof. Victor Mair (Language Log) also led me to this story, which is covered in the Wall Street Journal (Wenxin Fan) (paywalled) and also at Gizmodo (Passant Rabie) (unpaywalled) and MIT Technology Review (Zeyi Yang); I quite from Gizmodo:

A Chinese software developer is facing backlash after a writer accused its word processing software WPS of locking her out of a novel draft, claiming that the document contains "sensitive content." …

The Chinese novelist, who goes by the alias Mitu, was using WPS, which is similar to Google Docs, to write up her novel, when she suddenly could no longer access the document on June 25. Mitu spoke out about her experience through the Chinese literature forum Lkong, saying that WPS was "spying on and locking my draft," according to MIT Technology Review. Her plight was shared through different online platforms, with several people reporting that the same thing had happened to them before.

Meanwhile, WPS issued a statement on Weibo, denying that the software would lock one of its users out of a document. However, WPS went on to clarify that any online service in China is obligated by law to review the content on their platforms, but that they would protect the security of user information. Mitu said that she reported the issue to WPS, and was eventually granted access to the document, according to the South China Morning Post….

Related to this, recall that Google Drive (including both "Drive" and "Docs") is governed by Google's "abuse" policies, which provide, among other things:

Do not engage in hate speech. Hate speech is content that promotes or condones violence against or has the primary purpose of inciting hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or any other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization.

To be sure, Google is a private company, but such an influential one that such policies, if invoked, may well have a serious effect. Fortunately, I'm unaware of Google actually using this policy to cancel people's access to their own documents, but then again ten years ago I hadn't expected AirBnb to cancel the accounts of people based on the ideological rallies to which they were apparently going, or Facebook or Twitter to block the accounts of prominent elected officials.