Freedom of Speech and the Right to Privacy:
do these values hold true in the Online World?
When looking into New Communication Technologies, often the first thing that comes to mind is social media. These networking platforms have interweaved themselves with the internet and almost everyone is interacting with them; Facebook alone has more than 1.23 billion active members. However, how many of these members are aware of how their private data is being exploited or that their supposed right of free speech is being restricted, and that what they say and do online can have impact in the ‘real’ world? This essay argues that free speech and privacy are no longer legitimate concepts on social media and that users need to be aware of the issues surrounding their online interaction. The first section will bring to light the consequences that participating in ‘free speech’ online can potentially have, which shows how this notion of ‘freedom’ is being erased. Secondly, the argument will look at the mining of personal data by large internet corporations and the ‘free labour’ that social platform users provide to advertising companies and lastly, the current level of awareness that internet users have on these matters will be discussed.
Freedom of speech online, and in particular on social media, is no longer an accurate description of the sharing of opinions and thoughts on these platforms due to the offline punishment that often occurs as a result. To begin with an intense example, The Islamic Republic of Iran made its first blogger arrest when imprisoning Sina Motellabi, a Tehran based blogger and journalist, in 2003 (Bucar, 2008). An article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies stated that the first blogposts “were about the Internet and other forms of information technology, but he shifted to writing about pop culture and international issues” (Bucar, 2008, p.410), including criticisms of the treatment of political prisoners by the Iranian government. Many other arrest have been made since then, with Bucar (2008) explaining how “the legal, religious, and cultural attacks on bloggers follow a general pattern of tactics used to silence those who have criticized the regime”. ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (2006) have named the country “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East”.
Whilst Iran may not follow the constitutional belief in the right to free speech and these arrests may seem irrelevant and extreme, there is significant evidence that Western democracy is following a similar path of restricting speech. A report in the Journal of Media Law states that “As social media become increasingly important modes of socialisation and communication, greater attention will need to be paid to the question of whose law governs standards of free speech on social media platforms” (Mills,2015, p.4). Additionally, students are under threat of potential punishment for their expressions and content on personal social media pages with Berkley College New York addressing usage of social media by saying “Even activities of a private nature conducted away from the College can subject you to disciplinary action” (Daugird et al, 2015, p.95). Although justification exists for these policies such as attempting to reduce discrimination within, and defamation of, the institute, it is still a testament to the fact that ‘free’ speech is no longer a constant right online, with advisory reports to the Us Commission of Civil Rights proving this by stating that “Freedom of speech is not absolute in all circumstances and forums” (California Advisory Committee, 2012). Hence one can see that expression and speech online cannot be legitimately described as ‘free’ as there are costs involved.
Secondly, the notion of ‘private’ information on social media is no longer existent due to the intense data mining that corporations engage in, as well as the relative ease with which information can be accessed. Although advertising on social platforms has been prominent for many years, the personalisation of it has not been as recognized among users. Recent studies on ‘You Media’ suggests that “the networked architecture and interactive nature of the internet gives social media corporations, from Google to Facebook, unprecedented access to mobilize ‘free’ audience labour for capital accumulation…[and] allows new, more intense forms of exploitation” (Fisher, 2015, p. 53). Advertising companies now rely on the concept of ‘audience labour’, meaning that internet users not only consume data passively, but that advertising “takes place also through the work of the audience as marketers” (Fisher, 2015). Basically, these organisations purchase personal data from media corporations and use it to individually target internet users with personalised advertisements based off their search history and activity on platforms such as Facebook. As well as this, research on privacy leakage has shown that cyber criminals are now placing higher value on stealing private information, rather than shutting networks down with viruses and other attacks (Ahmad et al, 2010). The report from an Australian Information Security Management Conference explains how “they use information available in the public domain, especially online social media, to gather as much information on individuals before launching spear-phishing and social engineering techniques to obtain credentials for accessing the valuable information” (Ahmad et al, 2010 p.70). So not only do advertising corporations use personal information for profit, but those with the appropriate skills can breach online privacy settings using content from social networking platforms, therefore extinguishing the concept of being private on the internet.
Although the benefits of social networking platforms and online interaction are constantly being endorsed, many users are still not aware of the full extent of issues they face on the internet. For example, an article on social media privacy and employees showed significant results in the contradicting expectations/ beliefs that people have on their privacy rights versus the authority that their employers have to monitor behaviour online, with employees generally believing “that it is illegal and unethical for employers to intrude into certain areas of their lives, although organisations usually have the legal rights to survey their employee’s online activities” (Sanchez et al, 2012 p. 78). Even the ‘Wiretap Act’ which protects data that has been privately sent and stored by prohibiting its interception, is not applied to social media. The study also explains how millennials have privacy expectations that “appear to be somewhat paradoxical” as they usually desire privacy from unintended eyes despite sharing heavy amounts of personal information online (Sanchez et al, 2012).
Other research on the factors influencing internet users to read privacy statements indicates that “people with more internet experience have lower privacy concerns” (Beldad et al, 2010) despite it being a more significant issue for those who regularly use online sites and post content. Findings also showed that older individuals were more likely to examine privacy statements than younger ones, and that those with a higher level of education exhibited less chance of reading these documents than users with lower education. As well as this, it was found that “the presence and the ease of finding an online privacy statement are sufficient to prompt most respondents to disclose requested personal data” (Beldad et al, 2010). This is concerning as although majority of the population use the internet, social media demographics are of a younger age and users generally have high internet experience, but according to research are not as concerned or aware of online privacy issues, and may make untrue assumptions about the use of their data.
In conclusion, the notions of privacy and free speech online can no longer be held as true, and people who interact with the internet need to be made aware of this. The various consequences that users can face as a result of online behaviour and the mining of personal data and ease of breaching privacy settings has proved the ceasing of these concepts. Research shows how majority of users are not conscious of these issues facing them online, therefore needing to be educated on the complexity that social media brings to their lives. Although social networking platforms are useful tools and provide many benefits, the negatives still hold weight and need consideration, and users should take steps to minimise their risk online by being aware of the potential effects of their online behaviour and how personal data is used.
Ahmad, A., Chang, S., Molok, A. & Nuha, N. 2010, “Information Leakage through Online Social Networking: Opening the Doorway for Advanced Persistence threats”, Australian Information Security Management Conference, pp. 69-81. [Link: http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1092&context=ism ]
Beldad, A., de Jong, M. & Steehouder, M. 2010, “reading the least read? Indicators of user’s intention to consult privacy statements on municipal websites”, Government Information Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 238-244.
Bucar, E. M. & Fazaeli. R. 2008, “Free Speech in Weblogistan? The Offline Consequences of Online Communication”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, pp 403-419.
California Advisory Committee. 2012, “Equal Educational Opportunity and Free Speech on public college and university campuses in California”, Advisory Report to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, pp. 4-18. [Link: http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/CA-Free-Speech-Report.pdf ]
Daugird, D., Everett, M., Jones, M., Lewis. L & White, A. 2015, “Diversity and Inclusion in Social Media: A case study of Student Behaviour”, Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, vol. 18, pp.92-102.
Fisher, E. 2015, “’You Media’: audience as marketing in social media”, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 37, no.1, pp. 50-67. [Link: http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/37/1/50.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr ]
Mills, A. 2015, “The law applicable to cross border defamation on social media: whose law governs free speech in ‘Facebookistan’?”, Journal of Media Law, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 1-35. [Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17577632.2015.1055942 ]
Reporters Without Borders. 2004, “Iran Annual Report”, Retrieved from www.rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=9940, Accessed 10 September 2016.
Sanchez Abril, P., Levin, A. & Del Riego, A. 2010, “Blurred Boundaries: Social Media privacy and the Twenty-First-Century Employee”, American Business Law Journal, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 63-124.
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