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Was a Popular Saint Lucia Blog Taken Down by Google Hateful or Just Outspoken?

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Writer and actor Jason Sifflet's popular Saint Lucia-based Flogg Blog was taken down by Google for violating its terms of service before being restored last week. The no-holds-barred, muckraking blog had become both notorious and controversial among people interested in local politics.

Sifflet reported the removal of the blog in a series of posts on his Facebook page:

4am SATURDAY, AUGUST 30: When the other NEG left the tower, I went back to my mocambo and got out my cyber-drum. Imagine my surprise to find that GOOGLE had burnt my cyber-fort THE FLOGG BLOG to the ground. No warning. No prior notification. Just an email saying: 

Hello, Your blog at http://thefloggblog.blogspot.com/ has been reviewed and confirmed as in violation of our Terms of Service for: HATE.

In accordance to these terms, we've removed the blog and the URL is no longer accessible. For more information, please review the following resources:

Terms of Service: http://www.blogger.com/go/terms 

Blogger Content Policy:http://blogger.com/go/contentpolicy 

-The Blogger Team 

Sifflet, still considered an enfant terrible despite a career that spans nearly two decades, had a dedicated following and The Flogg Blog's sudden demise has been a major topic of discussion in both mainstream and social media on the Caribbean island, with much speculation on what motivated the blog's removal. The Flogg Blog's contents ranged from investigative reporting to acerbic satirical pieces, all written in a freewheeling, profane style which was usually leavened with profanity. Sifflet's blog included investigations into mismanagement at several statutory boards, including the Saint Lucia Tourist Board, which were particularly controversial.

Sifflet discussed The Flogg Blog and his career in a lengthy interview a few days before the blog was taken down:

Norbert Williams believed the controversy will have a “Streisand effect”, making Sifflet's work even more prominent:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California inadvertently generated further publicity of it. 
 
If Jason Sifflet's FloggBlog had been popular before last Saturday, the take down from the Google servers because of a purported ‘HATE’ report has only increased its popularity and an unquenched desire, by all and sundry, to read it from end to end in an attempt to decipher who is behind such a dastardly deed. Nevertheless, the conclusion by everyone and their dog is that it was perpetrated by some stinking politician because it certainly wasn't by Fidel Castro! They're just all confused as to which one.

 Williams added that Sifflet has merely exposed the topics that many Saint Lucians already discuss privately:

The Flogg Blog has shaken things up in St. Lucia. Even though it was not articulated in mainstream media, much of what Jason wrote has been thought of and discussed by many St. Lucians. They talked about the Flogg Blog at work, on Facebook, in emails, some mother-floggers even stayed up late at night unable to sleep because of the details and damning information contained within.

Kevin Edmonds suspected that Sifflet's harsh criticism of the tourism industry is what may landed him in trouble (A few days after the Flogg Blog was taken down, Sifflet announced on Facebook that his wife had lost her job at a local hotel) : 

A series of recent posts on the Flogg Blog sharply critiqued the St. Lucian tourism industry, discussing such topics as high level corruption, crime, money laundering and bluntly stating that it is creating an apartheid like system on the island. Heavy stuff, no doubt – but it was excellent, much needed stuff.  You do not find this kind of pointed critique in The Star, The Voice or the Mirror. This is because one would be a fool to think that the mainstream media in St. Lucia or anywhere else is divorced from power. It acts as little more than public relations for the power – allowing critique to fall within a very narrow, previously agreed upon spectrum. Go outside of that and you are in trouble. See Jason Sifflet as Exhibit A.

He continued:

What we are seeing with the case of the Flogg Blog is that the interpretation of what constitutes hate speech is actually violating freedom of speech on the island and the wider internet in general. Whether or not you agree with the Flogg Blog – that is not the point – it is that his right to say it is under attack.
An important part of the definition of hate speech is that it ‘intimidates a protected individual or group’. Protected individual or group? Who is being protected from who? The powerful are being protected from the people? You don’t say!

In contrast, Tonjaka Ewart Kho-Hinkson noted that because Google is a private company that can make and enforce its own rules about content created by its users, the removal of Sifflet's blog, while problematic, actually may not constitute a violation of free speech:

The right to free speech DOES NOT exist between two private actors such as between two persons or two companies or any combination thereof. So you do not have a right to say whatever you like on my property, for example. […] The Flogg Blogg does not have a ‘right’ to free speech where the exercise of that right is being enforced against Google (a company) who is a private actor. In fact, it wouldn't be enforceable against Facebook for that matter. So unless it can be shown that the views contained within the Flogg Blogg are censored after being expressed on a domain owned and controlled by the Flogg Blogg itself, and censorship is conducted by the state, then there is no attack on free speech here. This is a wrong [assertion] in law.

Hinkson addressed the likelihood of Google acting under the instructions of government officials:

In the interesting case of the SLU government putting pressure on google to take down the blog, if there were any evidence of this, then this still would not amount to a violation of Article 10 of the St. Lucia constitution. Only if that pressure gave google no choice other than to remove the blog would there be a violation. But my guess is that google is not beholden to the whims of the St. Lucia government, and it would have to be shown that google would have been significantly affected financially by that pressure. 

Hinkson stated that he has advised Sifflet to purchase his own domain name. In the mean time, Sifflet continued his work on a new blog on a different platform and began an attempt to uncover the reasons for the Flogg Blog being taken down.

Interestingly, the blog was restored on the Google platform on September 11. Global Voices got in touch with Sifflet to determine whether he was given any explanation for The Flogg Blog being taken down in the first place. This is what he said:

The email of Sat Aug 31 3:35 am informed me that the blog was deleted for TOS hate [violating Google's Terms of Service concerning hate speech on the Blogger platform]. It was one paragraph, very simple, no warning. By nine the next morning, I had a few calls that ratted out some culprits. One name remained the same and other names kinda changed. But the suspects were all political lawyers and statcorp CEOs – i.e. people who felt attacked by the blog.

By this time, I had already appealed for review through the help forums. But it was discouraging cos I couldn’t get a human response. Just automated response.

Automated response after automated response for days.

But then, a couple of American lawyers came out of the woodwork to bat for me on the other side. And a couple of Lucians had a friend of a friend in Google who might be able to check. The field research over the next few days revealed some surprising things which will take some time to work out.

So Wednesday, afternoon, I think, after I set up the new DIS Flogg and started republishing old Tourist board articles, just to fuck with the people I know fucked with me…Google reinstates the FLOGG with a simple message saying it was like a mistake of an automated scan.

In any case, I drop one story from each blog, just to be a dick and then, SOURCE B at Google calls me for an unofficial source, he sounds really formal and official with me.

‘This was a mistake. It should never have happened. It seems there was a community complaint which should not have been dealt with at the level it was. As a result, your blog has been flagged so that this never happens again. In fact, if there are new complaints, they have to bee forwarded higher up the chain than the regular blog, because of this incident. This was a big mistake. Your blog contains nothing that is hateful or violates free speech. This should never have happened.’

Our conversation went like this for 20 minutes.

All the while, I’m trying to get him to give me transcripts and identities, but he is insisting the same way I have freedom of speech, so do the people who complained and Google guaranteed them anonymity, which means the lawyers who are helping me now have a very well defined assignment on their hands.

Sifflet's story provides an instructive example of a case that pits speech and privacy rights against one another, and of a situation in which further inquiry with the decision-maker (Google, in this case) led to a strong outcome.

To learn more about blogging and social media content removals and appeals processes for these kinds of incidents, read “Account Deactivation and Content Removal: Guiding Principles and Practices for Companies and Users,” a collaborative report by the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Berkman Center.

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