Big Brother at ‘The Village Voice’


Power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave, cries, “Give, give!”

—Abigail Adams, 18th-century feminist

E-mail can be resurrected from computer hard-drives even after it has ostensibly been deleted. And companies are increasingly monitoring jokes and e-mail sent from home as well as work over company computers.

—George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, “The Eroded Self,” The New York Times Magazine, April 30

I have been at the Voice since 1958. Until now, whatever problems management had with a worker here were specific to that employee. There was no active, random monitoring operation under which everyone was treated as a suspect who might be violating company rules.

And there was a system of due process—not always perfect—by which individuals were told they were in jeopardy, with specific charges outlined in a letter that was placed in the worker’s file. Employees could defend themselves. This process was strengthened once we got ourselves together to join a union.

Now, however, Voice management has joined the accelerating number of companies who monitor their workers’ use of the company’s e-mail, voice mail, and computer systems. This comprehensive presumption of guilt was implemented outside of collective bargaining, and if there was advance notice, I didn’t get it, nor have any of my colleagues here that I’ve asked.

Until management’s update of George Orwell’s 1984, this was a free paper—free of continual surveillance of its staff by management.

But we are now in a forced march into the new, ever expanding technology of surveillance, and—as Jeffrey Rosen notes in the April 30 Times—”the inhibiting effects on creativity and efficiency are palpable. Surveys of the health consequences of monitoring in the workplace have suggested that electronically monitored workers experience higher levels of depression, tension, and anxiety, and lower levels of productivity than those who are not monitored.”

As I can attest from conversations with my colleagues, the chilling effect has begun. I hope that what follows in this column will alert workers in other shops who are still free of Big Brother to make plans for resistance, including making this omnivorous invasion of workers’ privacy a priority issue in the next round of union collective bargaining. And so should we at the Voice—or resist right now.

As you are about to see, in addition to turning Voice employees “from subjects to objects” (novelist Milan Kundera’s term), this Voice policy subverts a fundamental basis of American law—whether government action is involved, or, in this instance, when private companies impose rules controlling behavior and speech.

If the policy is so broad and vague that those targeted by it cannot know whether they are violating it or not, the policy is oppressively unjust.

Consider the slippery language in the Voice‘s “Policy on the Usage of the Company’s E-Mail, Voicemail, and Computer Systems.”

After stating that these systems are company property to be used “primarily for job-related purposes,” management adds that we can use them “for personal purposes, only in moderation, and only in accordance with this Policy. . . .

“These systems may not be used to create, transmit, or receive any offensive or disruptive messages. Among those that are considered offensive are any messages that contain sexual implications or jokes; messages that comment offensively on a person’s race, sex, age, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or religion; messages that defame others; and messages that invade a person’s privacy.” (As for that last phrase, doesn’t the Voice now do precisely that?)

You will note the qualification: “among those [messages] that are considered offensive.” The company reserves the right to add to this list of forbidden expression.

The company provides no definitions of “offensive,” “disruptive,” “sexual implications,” “defamation,” or “invasion of privacy.” That is vagueness and overbreadth.

Ah, but we are granted a touch of freedom: “The only exception to this rule is that messages may be created, transmitted, and received when necessary to pursue a journalistic endeavor or other legitimate Company purpose, even though they might be offensive to someone. In these cases, careful discretion should be used to ensure that the only employees who are exposed to the offensive material are those who have a true business need to see it.”

Gee, what if a writer who is not covering Chris Rock finds one of Rock’s HBO lines funny and transmits it to a fellow worker who doesn’t have “a true business need to see it”? Lenny Bruce could have gone on for a whole show on that one—or on the whole policy.

And who is to define—in the case of a subjected worker—such broad and vague prohibitions as “sexual implications,” “offensive or disruptive,” and “defamation”? (Will those on staff who are public figures have a different standard of defense when charged with defamation?)

Is there an appellate procedure? Can we bring in Alan Dershowitz or Ron Kuby or Rod Smolla to save us from sanctions? (Punishments are also undefined in the policy, adding to the Kafkaesque nature of this ukase.)

A previously mentioned element in this new management surveillance policy may have slipped by you, as it initially did me: “These systems may not be used . . . to receive any offensive or disruptive messages.” (Emphasis added.)

If someone out there wants to get someone here in trouble, that’s the way to do it.

There’s more: “Village Voice Media reserves the unlimited right to monitor, access, review, copy, or delete any message, file, or document on its e-mail, voicemail, or computer systems, including matter stored on individual computers and related media. Employees may not take any steps to prevent the Company from obtaining such access, such as changing passwords or manipulating computer programs. Routine use of ‘delete’ or ‘trash’ options is permitted, but employees should be aware that these options do not necessarily preclude access to the deleted material.”

In 1984, where Big Brother was always watching, including through every television set, he convinced his serfs that War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

Here now at The Village Voice, Freedom is Censorship. And Self-Censorship.

A member of the staff asked not to be cited by name as a source of indignation in this piece on the policy.

In 1958, no one could have foreseen this version of the Voice in 2000—except as a joke.

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