After Apple removing Nazi music from iTunes, I’ve decide to put my own liberalism to the test and try and solve my inner conflict with the case: to which extent should I support freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, when the opinion goes against the mere existence of me as a person, my family and many of my friends; and its expression, which is being done through the most divine of arts – music.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea… an apple
Before doing so, some background information is needed in order to understand the situation Apple found itself in. Regarding freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, there are two cultural spaces, where those play a major role and which embody a different approach towards them – USA and Europe. They are of course not the only ones, but as two hegemonic cultures and the ones that are involve in this case, I will address them.
In the US, freedom of expression is seen as a value of overriding importance. It means that when it comes to issues of privacy or propaganda (just to name a few) vs. freedom of expression, freedom of expression will usually win.
In European countries on the other hand, as much as freedom of expression is important, other issues (such as privacy or restraining propaganda) are often seen as more crucial for society and individuals, and therefore have the upper hand in many conflicts.
It is now clear that Apple, as a US based company, which localizes its services and offers them in other countries, has found itself between a rock and a hard place. But Apple is not the first and certainly not the last to find itself in a similar situation.
Distinction of controversial material
That being said, I needed a distinction of what can be called ‘Nazi music’ and which kinds of it are legitimate to be offered as a (information-)product for the consumer (let’s say, an iTunes user).
To do this, I distinguished between three levels, which can make a musical piece being called ‘Nazi music’:
 Creator level – a creator, which is known to be holding this certain political opinion.
In this case my position is very clear, the artist has the right to hold his political opinions and express them. As long as those are not being embodied in his or her music, any denial to distribute it (=censor it) is an unethical and illegitimate sanction, which although indirectly, violate his or her freedom of opinion and expression.
 Symbolic level – symbols such as a Swastika on the cover or Musical elements, which are identified with National-Socialism, appear in the piece.
With symbols the situation gets more complicated. The use of symbols in art doesn’t always mean to praise what they stand for, they can also be used as critic and even degradation, or in some cases contain a whole new and different meaning.
Therefore, when a controversial symbol is the issue, one should carefully take a look at the context in which it appears, come into dialog with the artist when needed and possibly add some supplementary information to avoid any doubt.
A rush judgment or automated procedures (for example an algorithm, which deletes any content with Swastikas) may be an economical solution for big vendors, who have to go through large quantities of content on a daily basis. However, automated filtering may be contra-productive not just in terms of freedom of opinion or expression, but also may cause an opposite result by, for example, deleting content which criticize national-socialism while using some of its elements.
[3a] Content level – implied messages in the piece (lyrics).
Art is full of implied messages; in some cases it is all about those messages (take the Beatles for example), but what happens if they contain propaganda or other controversial material?
Here again a room for discussion should be opened: What part of the public recognizes it as propaganda, and why? Exactly what message is implied? Are there other interpretations? What is the artist’s official position to those interpretations? What relation does this piece have to other works (of the artist self and of other)?
[3b] Content level – explicit messages in the piece.
Also when the messages are explicit, the discussion is not to be avoided. Important issues are to be addressed, such as: What messages are being transferred and who do they address (e.g. social, gender or racial groups)? If and to what extent do they cross the fine line between freedom of expression and intolerable propaganda?
In both [3a] and [3b] other aspects are also to be taken into consideration such as: the social and legal frame in which the piece appears (e.g. a German, US or Chinese shop), the target audience and other audiences that could be exposed to it (minors or specific social groups).
In both cases, a rush decision of censorship due to “offensiveness” is often a quick and even economical solution, but much less productive than a public debate.
In the broader sense, I believe that this distinction is applicable for many other issues besides music. Also in literature, cinema, visual art, fashion and many more, controversial material such as propaganda, racism and sexism can find expression. But there are many ways to fight it without censoring it (and thus violating the creator’s and consumer’s freedom of opinion and expression). A productive dialog, offering contradicting pieces (for example a music piece or a play, which fight prejudice instead of reproducing it) and an organized boycott or demonstration are some examples of what society can do. But an official censorship is not the tool.
Intermediates (like iTunes or Youtube) often find themselves in difficult situations: cultural differences (as noted above), users distributing/consuming controversial contents and other users refusing to tolerate it, different legal frameworks (as in cases of copyrights) etc.
For those intermediates it is not a matter of supporting freedom of opinion and expression, it’s business. There are economical repercussions for having to screen content. And, if screening takes place, will it be human personnel (and who?!) or by an automated process, or leave it to the users to report problematic content. But it is also an economical consideration, how their public image is to be affected and what implication this could have on their business (for example users moving to a competitor).
And surprisingly enough, a public image of supporting freedom of opinion and expression at all costs is not always the best one for business because not taking measures against something, also in the name of neutrality and freedom of expression, is often misinterpreted as supporting the content.
The Horst Wessel Song
And back to our current matter: the piece ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ was the anthem of the Nazi Party between 1930-45, between 1933-45 the Nazis made it a co-national anthem of Germany, its lyrics contain explicit National-Socialist messages and it is illegal in Germany and Austria (except for educational purposes). Therefore, it complies with all of the above described levels and has also an illegal characteristic within Germany and Austria.
Regarding these facts and the delicacy that this content has in the German society I certainly do support the removal of this particular song from iTunes, but in the same breath I will emphasize that my opinion pertains to this song alone. Other ‘Nazi’ content should be examined in its specific context.
I will conclude with a wise saying, often incorrectly associated with Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) but actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall: