Freedom of expression and anonymity

Freedom of expression has interested me for a long time. As a society, we promote it, but we only do so to certain levels. Inciting hatred through racism, for example is illegal. And rightly so, in my view.

The opposite of freedom of expression is effectively censorship, either proactively in the form of the law, or reactively in the form of suppressing the speech of those speaking out in spite of the law.

In my view, it’s important that the point at which the law sits on that scale is close to the end labelled “freedom of expression”. It should, however, fall short of mindless verbal abuse and verbal bullying, both of which should be stamped out of society, ideally by peer pressure, but failing that by law.

But here’s the important point. Wherever we draw the line between freedom of expression and censorship, things that are said in a relatively public forum should be identifiable to us as individuals. Because failing that, we descend into a world where unqualified personal abuse is accepted. And that’s not a healthy place to be.

Imagine if newspapers and their journalists were not accountable for the things they published. They would become yet more despicable than many have proven themselves to already be. Yet the same should be true of other, more modern publishing mediums. By writing up to 140 characters on Twitter, I am firmly of the view that you should be able to stand behind those comments, both as a member of the human race and as a law-abiding citizen of the world. (The first is a point of principle; the second is a point of law.)

If your views will not be tolerated by your employer, then it’s time to temper the publishing of those views. Or it’s time to find a more liberal employer. You should be able to freely express yourself without damaging the reputation of your employer. It might be a delicate balance, but that is one of your responsibilities as an employee, I guess.

Unless you have your account set such (and the vast majority of people don’t), comments on Twitter about specific individuals can be searched for by those individuals, and can cause pain. They cannot be treated as private conversations that might be had down the pub. Yet the legal accountability associated with tweets is not as far progressed as that associated with news articles. The law will catch up, and it’s important that it does. Stan Collymore’s outing of racially abusive commenters is one example of this.

Now this all gets rather more interesting when you bring Facebook into play. Arguably, Facebook allows a more more closed conversation than does Twitter. Facebook is more pub-like in its approach to sharing, or probably more accurately a speech at a house party to which you’ve invited everyone you know (and some you barely know). Should comments on people’s protected Facebook walls be subject to legal scrutiny in the same way as tweets are? I’m not sure of the answer to this.

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts? Do people think that Twitter should allow fully anonymous tweeting that flouts laws about freedom of expression, or promotes the abuse of people without any recourse of accountability? And what of Facebook?

Comments

3 Responses to “Freedom of expression and anonymity”

  1. Jon on March 10th, 2012 18:25

    Dan,

    I’m not sure on all of this, but what I do find different with Twitter and Facebook is that even in closed/private groups any posts and comments are there as a matter of record, unlike the pub conversation – nothing to stop someone copying the comment (either cut and paste or take a picture of it) and re-posting elsewhere.

    I guess pub conversations can be re-iterated, but doesn’t seem to have the same impact.

    Generally in a free society it seems that anonymous comments would be unnecessary, but there’s the rub, many people don’t live in free societies – care to comment in China and put your name to it? I’m not sure I would want to.

    Unfortunately one of the benefits of the internet is the freedom to move in and out of conversations, post about news stories, etc in a way that you could never move in and out of pub conversations and express the same views.

    Or if you did, you’d soon find you are excluded, not being asked out to the pub, etc. Not so with the internet.

    Nice blog post mate,

    Jon

  2. Richard on March 10th, 2012 18:30

    If you didn’t allow anonymous tweets tho, you would lose all those spoof accounts which are one of the best things about Twitter

  3. @LiamStacey9 : Tangential Ramblings on March 21st, 2012 00:20

    […] I am not sad about this. His comments were offensive and my view is that legal action is appropriate. Online hate is rife, and when this is combined with racial abuse, it is simply unacceptable. In fact, even without racism, my view is that more should be done to close down on mindless hatred. […]

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