Annoy.com Webmaster says war art censored

Tussle over political poster pits Net free-speech veteran against online print shop.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
2 min read
An online free-speech activist is finding that even on the Internet, freedom of the press is for those who own one.

As Webmaster of Annoy.com, Clinton Fein once successfully challenged the federal government's online obscenity restrictions. In his new incarnation as a political artist, Fein now claims he's being muzzled by an online print shop that refused to print two of his works.

"From a constitutional standpoint there's not an issue, but from a corporate censorship standpoint it's an enormous issue," Fein said the day before his art opening at San Francisco's Toomey Tourell gallery. "It's not the role of printers to define the content of an artist."

Zazzle.com, a Palo Alto, Calif., online printing service, on Monday declined to release two of 10 prints Fein submitted last week. The prints in question criticize the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military.

The company made its decision after determining the prints violated the site's user agreement on the grounds of being both offensive to religious believers--in this case Christians--and excessively violent.

"The reason our QA staff decided to prevent distribution is that we have very clear guidelines, and we don't want to produce images of torture," said Zazzle vice president of business development Matt Wilsey. "We don't have a problem with political messages, but even if (the picture from Abu Graib) is iconic, it does represent humans torturing each other."

One of the images in question pictures an American flag whose stripes are replaced with the text of a U.S. military report on the abuse by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Graib, and whose stars are replaced by the image of a hooded prisoner standing on a small box and holding up wires.

Another shows a crucified President Bush and asks, "Who would Jesus torture?"

Wilsey said the company had refused to print other controversial images, including those of Jews in German concentration camps and the Japanese Americans in U.S. internment camps. He said Zazzle "occasionally" took heat for those decisions from clients like Fein.

Zazzle, incorporated in 1999 but not launched until last year, is one of a handful of online print shops tapping a market of artists, political candidates and activists, merchants and ordinary consumers who want the convenience of on-demand printing services and the potential to set up individual online stores hawking printed products.

Fein said he is still weighing his options with respect to Wednesday's exhibition opening and is considering legal action against Zazzle on breach-of-contract grounds.

While Zazzle's name is not attached to Fein's prints, the company said it is working to build its brand as a "family Web site." The company is a Disney licensee and maintains a ratings system to cordon off certain kinds of content displayed and sold on its site.

"We wish Clinton the best of luck and support his right to express his message," Wilsey said. "We just don't want to produce it."