Days numbered for free speech on internet?

20 Mar 2012

As featured on TM Forum’s the Insider Blog

Those of you old enough to remember the days of flower power and free love will also remember how many conventions were broken down as people around that time rebelled against inane authority and outdated laws. The era of McCarthyism, that fueled a propaganda war against anything that wasn’t in the best interests of America, was finally put to rest and people started thinking for themselves.

This new thinking spawned the internet age that we now live in, one that allowed the web to evolve unfettered by rules and regulations, mainly because it was so new regulators had not yet come up with rules for it, or even needed to.

It was perceived primarily as an academic network, safe and harmless, and not something that needed much regulation because it was limited to so few.

Yes, times have changed but the internet has, until recently, avoided the undue attention of regulators. ‘Net neutrality’ exponents have reared their ugly heads pretending to protect the internet and its freedom while completely missing the point that regulation of any type normally achieves the exact opposite.

Reports from a panel at the recent South by Southwest Interactive Festival (better known as SXSW) in Texas indicate the days of free speech on the internet, especially via social media, may soon become a thing of the past. Those disparaging remarks you make about a company’s service or products may come back to haunt you, whether they are true or not.

Making the most of social tools without running afoul of the law was the focus of comments made by Dara Quackenbush of Texas State University who gave attendees a crash course on fundamental social media legal issues.

She mentioned a former tenant of one Horizon Realty, who was sued after she tweeted to friends, “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s ok.” Even though the case was dismissed, Dara said it illustrated challenges that social media professionals face with libel law. (Courtney Love wasn’t as lucky when she tweeted a rant about her fashion designer. Love paid more than $400,000 to settle that lawsuit.)

Dara also raised issues surrounding the USA’s First Amendment and the right to free speech. Lawmakers of the time would never have envisaged the power of the internet to spread a message so far and so wide so quickly. While the First Amendment protects most forms of expression, the law has never protected speech that is lewd, obscene, profane and libelous or “fighting words.” And that is where the latest attempts to gag the internet come in.

Social media companies like Facebook include terms that users “will not bully, intimidate or harass … or use … hateful, threatening or profane” speech. Most social media terms of service contain, or should contain, similar provisions.

According to Forbes magazine, “in what can only have been a fit of corporate insanity, Twitter announced that it has the ability to filter tweets to conform to the demands of various countries.”

It used the example that in France and Germany it is illegal to broadcast pro-Nazi sentiments and Twitter will presumably be able to block such content and inform the poster why it was blocked, but the act of filtering may raise a number of other issues – and who should have the right or power to censor what people are writing on the internet.

For social networking sites, blog sites and open fora, the questions being raised are that if someone does publish something offensive, libelous or illegal, will those channels be targeted by governments, lawmakers and regulators?

Is this the end of ‘free speech’ and the free internet as we once knew it? Will CSPs, as part of the delivery chain of those messages, articles and blogs, also be liable for prosecution? You can see where all this is heading can’t you? We will, in due course, go the full circle and end up back in the days before flower power and free love where paranoia and ‘reds under every bed’ reigned supreme. Do we really want that?

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