You Should Be Worried About Microsoft’s “Offensive Language” Ban

Today, Microsoft's code of conduct might affect cyberbullies. What will tomorrow bring, though?

Remember that scene in Demolition Man where Sylvester Stallone wakes up in a dystopian future and is almost immediately fined for cursing in public? Wasn’t that an incredibly funny moment based entirely on the fact that such a future would never, ever happen?

Well, today, Microsoft announced new language in their terms of service policies which clarify that the company is able to serve penalties, suspensions, and bans against people who use “offensive language” across Xbox Live, Skype, and other Microsoft services.

Maybe Microsoft is enforcing this code of conduct on itself because the wording of the official policy is as careful as it can be. It states: “Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity).”

We’re not entirely sure how nudity, pornography, and bestiality are so casually lumped together – or how Microsoft intends to crack down on graphic violence when it publishes and develop several graphically violent games, such as Gears of War and State of Decay – but that’s a conversation for another day. 

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For the moment, it’s the “offensive language” warning that is drawing the attention. The biggest issue is that Microsoft makes no effort to explain what constitutes offensive language. There’s a code of conduct section for Xbox Live, but it generically notes “Profane words or phrases.” We assume that ****, ****, and ****** are strictly out, but what about ****, *****, and ******?

Seemingly aware of the tentative nature of this policy, Microsoft included a couple of disclaimers. First off, the company notes that it cannot “monitor the entire Services” and will make “no attempt to do so.” That suggests that Microsoft is not implementing live monitoring. However, it can access stored and shared content when looking into “alleged violations.” This indicates that part of this policy will work off of a user report system. 

Microsoft also states that it can remove or refuse to publish content for “any reason” and reserves the right to block “delivery of a communication” across services attached to this content policy. Additionally, the punishments for breaking this code of conduct now include the “forfeiture of content licenses” as well as “Microsoft account balances associated with the account.” That means that the company could theoretically remove games from your console or seize money in your Microsoft account. 

Those who are defending this policy point out that Microsoft essentially admits its ability to enforce such restrictions are limited. Furthermore, some are imagining that this will be used to implement a system of punishment for overly eager young Call of Duty players who use their microphones to suggest what they and your mother will be doing that evening. While there are noble ways this policy can be used to crack down on harassment, viewing this code of conduct in such a way requires a level of optimism that borders on foolishness. 

Microsoft has always been within its rights to ban users for both actual crimes and code of conduct violations. As Gizmodo points out, Microsoft has always had strict rules regarding pornography, bestiality, and the like in its code of conduct. In fact, past versions of the code of conduct have restricted “profane words or phrases.” Microsoft also reserved “the right to review Your Content” in the past. They’ve even since issued a statement to IGN that clarifies that this new language issued in an effort to make their policies more transparent. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is our understanding of the extent of what constitutes a policy violation across all Microsoft services as well as the punishments that Microsoft can enforce. The clarification of the “offensive language” clause means that a large group of people who probably never had to think of policy violations before can no longer be quite as sure they are behaving as Microsoft seemingly intends for them to behave. The increased punishments said violations may result in also invoke fears some modern consumers possess regarding what real rights they have to their digital content. 

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The wider net this particular policy change casts seems to be similar to Craigslist’s recent decision to shut down its personals section in response to the recent FOSTA bill (a bill designed to crack down on online sex trafficking but is vague enough to possibly affect even consensual sexual arrangements made online). In other words, Microsoft wants to legally distance itself from any possibility of being associated with the actions of its users.

We’ve long looked towards corporations and governments and asked what they are prepared to do about how we interact with each other. Well, we’re now starting to hear their response. 

I know, you don’t want politics in your video games and other forms of escapism. Truth be told, I don’t either. That’s the point, though. Policies like this are making it impossible to ignore the ways in which our means of communication and escape are becoming ever more open to those who would wish to monitor them for purposes both frighteningly clear and disturbingly vague.

The inclusion of a vague term like “offensive language” in this new policy is troubling because it technically leaves the decision of what’s “offensive” solely to Microsoft, which can then penalize you financially. Virtually every user curses once in a while on Xbox Live, shares a dirty word on a Word document, or maybe even says things he/she wouldn’t share with their moms to a cross-country partner over Skype. Are these now enough to get Microsoft’s attention?

Don’t be scared about this policy because of how it alters your today. Be scared of it because of the clear line it traces between today and a future in which we are openly fined credits for violations of the verbal morality statute.