Thousands of LiveJournal customers are rebelling against the company's recent decision to censor hundreds of sex-themed discussion groups, a broad swath that has led to the removal of literary critiques and fan-written fiction about Harry Potter.
LiveJournal, which is owned by San Francisco-based Six Apart, confirmed Wednesday that it deleted around 500 journals this week in hopes of better "protecting children." It said the deletion was prompted by activist groups, including one called Warriors for Innocence that claims to track sites promoting pedophilia, the sexual abuse of minors, and other illegal activities.
"We did a review of our policies related to how we review those sites, those journals, and came up with the fact that we actually did have a number of journals up that we didn't think met our policies and didn't think they were appropriate to have up," Barak Berkowitz, chairman and chief executive of Six Apart, said in a telephone interview. The site boasts about 13 million journals.
Some deleted LiveJournal communities went by names like childlove and little_children (a community permits multiple LiveJournal users to post entries, while an individual account is limited to one user). Others, however, broadly fall into the category of science fiction, fantasy or user-written "fandom " stories--and it is those that have sparked the outcry.
"As a queer, feminist writer who explores the darker aspects of human nature, many of my stories deal with incest, rape and child molestation," a LiveJournal member named "bitterfig" wrote. "As such, I belonged to and contributed to several of the communities which have been suspended and frankly I'm pretty offended. I don't like being lumped in with rapists and pedophiles and other 'monsters on the Web.'"
Practically any attempt to sort works of fiction into tidy piles of acceptable and unacceptable material, of course, is likely to invite controversy. Works by noted authors such as James Joyce, Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs have been lauded as masterpieces--and at other times prosecuted as obscene.
What has outraged the LiveJournal protesters is that the purging of discussions and accounts went far beyond what they say was necessary to target pedophilia. One post noted that two journals were deleted on the grounds that "they in some way encouraged illegal behavior" even though the accounts belonged to clearly labeled fictional characters in a role-playing game. Another deleted community was reportedly home to Spanish-language discussions of Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel Lolita.
Complicating matters is the fact that the science fiction and fantasy communities have long enjoyed amateur fiction about well-known characters--think Buffy the Vampire Slayer or pretty much anyone from the Star Trek universe. Some of those stories are parodies; others involve sex. A related genre includes "shota" or "shouta," which generally refers to depictions of romantic relationships between teenage boys or between an adult and an underage boy. (One user quipped: "Fandom is not about porn any more than the gay rights movement is about Teletubbies.")
One LiveJournal user named "omen-chan" acknowledged once being victimized by a pedophile, but nevertheless warned that the mass deletion went too far. "Pedophilia is disgusting, and I can understand deleting these," the post said. "However 'shouta' is simply fiction written about two underaged boys getting together, usually in a non-graphic way. There is absolutely nothing illegal in that. Fourteen-year-olds hook up together all the time. It's called high school."
One now-deleted group called "pornish_pixies" focused on fan-written fiction, frequently sexually explicit, about characters in the Harry Potter novels. "The distinction between fiction and non-fiction could not be made any clearer in a place like the Harry Potter fandom, and this oversteps the boundaries that the LiveJournal abuse team has," said a pornish_pixies member who identified herself as Maria in an e-mail. (A related group, "erotic_elves," has survived the purge.)
For its part, LiveJournal's abuse staff has defended pulling the plug on the communities by saying: "Material which can be interpreted as expressing interest in, soliciting or encouraging illegal activity places LiveJournal at considerable legal risk." That led one user, "femmequixotic," to reply: "I list 'gay marriage' among my interests--that is illegal in my state. With this wording my journal could be deleted, without warning, for the fact that I support equal rights of marriage for all."
Legal experts say LiveJournal is clearly not liable for fictional stories and related discussions posted by its users, thanks to a 1996 federal law immunizing Web-based discussion forums from lawsuits . "If the content is otherwise legal, then LiveJournal has no obligation to police its site or remove any legal content it finds," said Eric Goldman, who teaches at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
LiveJournal's terms of service ban "objectionable" content and say any account can be deleted "for any reason." But the company also claims to "provide users with as much freedom of speech as possible."
"Our decision here was not based on pure legal issues," countered Six Apart's Berkowitz. "It was based on what community we want to build and what we think is appropriate within that community and what's not. We have an awful broad range of discussions and topics and other things going on in LiveJournal, and we encourage other broad-ranging conversations on all sorts of topics. This was a specific case where we felt there was not a reason (for these journals to stay online)."
Berkowitz said the company would "obviously apologize" to anyone whose journal was deleted in error but added: "That's going to be a very small minority of the sites. I would be shocked if it's more than a dozen."
Some LiveJournal users have taken the abuse department's claim--that discussions of illegal activity must be deleted even if they're fictional--and tried to counter it with examples from literature. One post listed a slew of fictional works including Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Juliet is 13- or 14-years-old when married), Mary Shelley's Mathilde, Sophocles' Oedipus plays, and It by Stephen King.
Others have tried more creative forms of activism. A "pro-fandom" protest group set up this week already counts 4,468 members. Others are touting GreatestJournal, JournalFen, or InsaneJournal as less-censorial alternatives. A petition to LiveJournal management has appeared, as have groups calling for a online war against the people associated with the Warriors for Innocence group.
Warriors for Innocence did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on Wednesday. But a recent post on the group's Web site replies to the protests by taunting the activists: "Let the caterwauling and complaining continue; LJ has chosen to enforce rules that were already in place for all to see. 'I finally got held accountable, and it's all your fault' won't fly."
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.