The Word on the Net: Are you Free to Speak Online?

Word on the Net

The internet has long been thought of as a haven for free speech. After all, a location that houses as many forums, as many open places of discussion, as many social networking websites as the internet couldn’t possibly be restricting your freedom of speech, right? You would think this, but let’s analyze some basic aspects of the internet and how they affect your ability to speak your mind.

Freedom in the Blogosphere and in the Forums

Here’s a challenge for you: go over to Kotaku, and comment on whatever article you please and start posting some insulting information about how the Wii is better than the PS3 – go ahead and let out your inner sailor for this project. The challenge I pose to you is to not get banned from commenting on that website ever again. The reality is, that whenever people get offended on a website that is moderated, or a website that has a person who sits there and reads comments getting ready to disemvowel them, your freedom of speech ends the minute you post spam (or what is thought to be spam) or any sort of personally insulting comment. Of course, this is not a bad thing. After all, if you want your website to be accessible to people of all ages (read: children), it’s not acceptable for them to start reading foul language or graphic language. So, where do you draw the line? Perhaps by creating a system where you need to be registered and over a certain age to be able to view comments or forum threads – certified by credit card information, which is usually hard for children to get their hands on. Of course, even doing this won’t ensure that your comment board or forum doesn’t become a "Wild West" of sorts for commenters. The situation is one that is not only difficult to assess, but because of the difficulty in its resolution, continues to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Freedom to Email

Emails are all fun and games right? You send a fun little message to your friend, they send one back, and on and on it goes, or so you would think. But emails have the potential to damage you in ways you can scarcely imagine. Thanks to the Patriot Act, the US government can covertly spy on your emails all the time without warning you in any way, shape or form. Furthermore, if an inappropriate email makes its way to the person you’re badmouthing, there can be real-world consequences for your freedom to say whatever it is that you please. Inter-office emailing where a person is being badmouthed or "bashed" has become so frequent that there are programs available out there for you to covertly send these emails. Is this truly a free society? No, but once again, the line between "expressing yourself" and "wrongdoing" is a fine one – and again, the email problem is treated on a case-by-case basis.

Freedom of Social Networking

Truly the last bastions of free speech are social networking sites. After all, you’re with your friends, so you can go ahead and post whatever comes to mind that no one will mind, right? On multiple occasions, I tried posting something on Facebook only to be met with a message telling me that what I was trying to post was inappropriate and that they wouldn’t let me until I fixed it. Furthermore, if you think your pictures and information are safe on a website such as facebook, you’d be wrong. Without some serious tweaks, upon initially joining Facebook, just about anyone can access your profile, pictures and information. And even with the security settings turned on, you’d do well to check who it is that you’re clicking "yes" to befriend. That person could be an employer trying to spy on your activities to see if you’d make a good employee or if you’ve had encounters with drugs before (common pictures on the website).

And these are only three examples. The fact of the matter is, that the only real place you have complete freedom to say whatever you please is inside your own head. The internet may have greatly expanded our communication abilities, but because of built-in facilities, it continues to stifle our total free speech in the interest of maintaining decorum and stability on these websites.