Beginning in May, Microsoft will begin enforcing some new rules for users of its products, and a lot of people aren't going to be happy when the ban hammer comes swinging. According to the new user agreement, people can have their accounts suspended or closed for violations including "offensive language".
Image: Microsoft, The Internet
Microsoft notified users about an update to its terms of service over the weekend. One user, Jonathan Corbett, a law student and civil rights advocate, first pointed out on his blog that across Microsoft's services you can now apparently be banned for publicly displaying or using the services "to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity)".
Corbett took issue with the vague terms being used and wondered aloud whether this meant that he could lose his accounts for an adult video call with his girlfriend or if graphic violence will apply to violent video games. He also complained that he was banned from Reddit's r/Microsoft community for posting his blog.
You should know that it probably isn't as extreme as Corbett fears. We've asked Microsoft for clarification on how decisions will be made for what constitutes a violation of its terms but did not receive an immediate reply.
In its summary of changes, Microsoft writes: "In the Code of Conduct section, we've clarified that use of offensive language and fraudulent activity is prohibited." All the stuff about nudity, graphic violence, bestiality and whatnot has been part of the service for quite some time, according to a Wayback Machine search. In fact, the Xbox Code of Conduct has also previously prohibited "profane words or phrases".
What's new is that "offensive language" has been added to presumably cover other uses of language that might not be classified as "profane", and violating Xbox's Code of Conduct can result "in suspensions or bans from participation in Xbox Services, including forfeiture of content licenses, Xbox Gold Membership time, and Microsoft account balances associated with the account".
It also doesn't appear that Microsoft will be digging through your OneDrive archives or Outlook inbox. It does say that it "reserves the right to review Your Content" when it's "investigating alleged violations of these Terms". Again, it may give everyone little comfort to know that clause was already part of the old agreement.
As for Skype, your privacy should be fine with Skype-to-Skype voice, video, file transfers and instant messages because those features use end-to-end encryption. However, any use of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) through Skype is not encrypted, even if a user logs onto a group call between people who are conferencing Skype-to-Skype.
Anyone who's played an online shooter on Xbox with voice chat knows that profanity and "offensive language" are commonplace. Microsoft even said last August that it was going to relax its enforcement of the reputation system that can get players kicked out of a game.
Another concern that's been raised is that Microsoft is making these adjustments to comply with the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), a bad bill that US Congress passed last week which promises to increase censorship on the internet. That isn't a crazy theory, and we've already seen Craigslist shut down its Personals section just to ensure it won't run afoul of that legislation. Still, "offensive language" doesn't seem like it would directly relate to SESTA. We asked Microsoft if the changes were in any way prompted by the bill, but had not received a reply at time of writing.
All in all, this doesn't appear to be a big change, but companies are increasingly getting into online spats with people claiming that a ban for hate speech or harassment violates their freedom of speech. More vague terms could be inevitable because companies want to have all of their bases covered when they send a violation notice.