Editor’s Viewpoint: Freely speaking in all tongues
Free speech isn't really free, it comes with a price. I am not referring to the brave people who spoke out for justice and equality in the civil rights movement, or members of our military who gave their lives to protect such rights. We are all facing a brave new free speech world since we crossed the border into the online netherworld.
For example, information about us has been quietly and efficiently gathered — a virtual list of who, what, where, when and how on millions of us. Once we write it down, post photos, buy denture cleaner, whatever, it becomes available for the whole world to see and, more importantly, use. And, the best part? Everyone from marketers to governments are just beginning to figure out how to use all that information.
While generally not as advanced as business when it comes to accessing online information, governments are using such information in a number of ways, mostly to improve communication with their residents. Similarly, law enforcement is using social media and technology to intercept information freely given by people who may present a threat to lives or property.
The Internet has also extended the concept of free speech globally, and of course, the tyrants aren't happy about that, because, after all, speaking freely only leads to dissent where personal rights are being smothered. Still, the Internet has proven to be a two-edged sword, as we see from the events in Egypt as they continue to unfold.
The expansion of free speech also has had serious implications for social media giants like Google and Facebook, which now have new responsibilities, for example, deciding if they should block messages on their networks that could lead to violence. That was best illustrated when Google-owned YouTube allowed the anti-Islamic video on its site that set off a streak of protests across the Middle East and a hot debate here on whether they should have.
They, like every media outlet, now have to make decisions about the dark side of free speech. But the First Amendment wasn't written to protect society from the bulk of us who play inside the rules. It was created to force us to decide if the value of free speech overrides the potential harm of messages that we do not like or even fear. We do have some guidelines, (not screaming fire inside a theater) and the United Kingdom has even more, for example, its definition of obscenity includes corruption of public morals.
It's odd to think of Facebook and Google as media companies like newspapers or television networks. But like them, they now possess the same type of information about us that every news story includes (remember, who, what, when, where and how?) and have to balance the legal and ethical use and sale of it. More importantly, they now have the responsibility of whether certain free speech should see the light of day.
Funny how they gained that power, virtually overnight, and maybe even more interesting how those companies' policies will evolve now that their power extends worldwide.