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Free Speech vs Privacy

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Free speech AND deteriorating privacy

When the Wiki Leaks scandal has rocked the world, impacting diplomatic relations throughout the United States, Europe and beyond; we recognized that both diplomacy and transparency would have a difficult time coexisting.

The issue of Cyberbullying is directly impacted by this trend, because Cyberbullying depends on people's right to free speech and the internet platforms that carry that free speech


Although the net was expected to be many things, I am not quite sure if people anticipated that the internet would become an open window into our homes and our lives which would essentially place us all in glass houses.

I believe that we have allowed the lines of several different ideas to be blurred in an unhealthy way and that we are going to need to reexamine whether we are comfortable with this status quo.

There are really three different 'freedoms' which are at play in our decisions about what should be public and what should be private:

1) Free Speech - The First Ammendment guarantees our freedom to say what we want and to freely express ourselves. Mediia, who are perhaps the most powerful entity in our nation other than the government and fuel interests (petroleum and coal), have fought vigorously for their right to say what they wish and as a result the courts have widely sided with Speech Freedom. However, what the constitution guarantees is that no laws will be made which hinder free 

speech. This does not mean that free and unfetterred speech does not have consequences. If you cry fire in a crowded theatre, your free speech will have a consequence. If you ask the TSA agent whether its okay to bring explosives on board the plane, your free speech will have consequences. If you threaten someone with bodily harm, there will be consequences. And if you write something nasty about someone online there will be consequences. I believe that America is so in love with its Freedom of Speech, that it has lost sight of the fact that the constitution does not invite damaging speech. It just prohibits laws that preclude it.

2) Freedom of Information - One of the most horribly misunderstood concepts about information today is Freedom of Information. The FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT was created to make government as trasparent as possible, so that people (who are the ones paying for government) would have access to what their government is doing. You can request information on government salaries, government documents and decisions and a whole host of other government information. There is no statement in the bill of rights which guarantees you freedom to know about other people. There are also very few laws which do as well. A very recent trend in todays world is the criminal background check. This evolved of course out of the need to protect vulnerable populations from harm. The background check evolved because it was recognized that certain public data is available through the FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT because court records (with many restrictions) are open. Since someone being convicted in a court is public information by law (unless they are under 18) it seemed reasonable that making this information available to prospective employers would be logical. And so methods for obtaining these records evolved from labor intensive court searches to big databases that could be accessed online. However, you have no legal right whatsoever to know another individuals criminal history. You simply have the right to know public court information because courts are public institutions. This is hard for people, but the lack of distinction has created a wave of difficulty for people looking for jobs. In Massachusetts, it is a crime to disseminate background check information, other than what remains as public documentation in the courts. For this reason, organizations who are authorized to do background checks have lots of regulations that they must follow for safe storage of the information about their employees.

3) Reality TV - When making good television became too hard and networks were looking for cheap ways to get people interested in watching, reality TV came about. The idea existed for a long time actually, going back to 1948 with Allen Funts wonderfully famous and funny candid camera. In Funts version, people would be introduced to unusual or awkward situations in public and Funt would candidly film them, before revealing to them that it was just a joke and that they were on candid camera. Because the pranks were so benign (a fly in the soup) people rarely took exception to Funt. Going back even farther, and with a more controvertial history, the National Enquirer, created the idea of the tabloid newspaper as far back as the 1920s. The Enquirer was far less loved than Candid Camera because it poked fun at the private lives of people, often casting them in a very negative

light. Many of the stories were just speculative in nature and instead of putting normal people in funny situations, the Enquirer was interested in making sport of people's real lives. Fast forward to todays world, where reality TV is all the rave and everything from Survivor, to American Idol to COPS, creates entertainment from the pain, privacy and suffering of others. There is little sanctity to human feelings any more. Everything seems to be fair game

And so a blending of feeling entitled to know everything about everyone, of having no boundaries for privacy and personal feelings, and the right to say whatever you want, has created an immense desire to expose it all, tell it all and know it all. Facebook and MySpace are simply the civilized manifestation of that, and their civility depends on the user

making the choice to use it judiciously. I do believe that Facebook will continue to exist, but it will need to evolve as our views on these freedoms and privacies evolve. On the other hand, some sites just blatantly exist to exploit the misunderstanding of these freedoms, the most notorious (so far) is Burnbook was basically creates as a Facebook style website, organized by town and school, which just allowed people to post nasty things about each other. It was an exercising of free speech that I liken to free sex in the 60s. The sudden discovery of a perceived freedom, results in over use and abuse. From the 60s came waves of STDs, and eventually the spreading of AIDS, until we realized that sex is fine but it comes with some responsibility too.

The WIKI LEAKS incident is important because it highlights the trend from a society where privacy is recognized, to one where free and open information is more greatly valued, even though it is actually far less protected by the Bill of Rights. While the bigger issues in our society affect individual people and not leaks of government information, the Supreme Court is going to be faced with setting new precedents as they interpret legal issues surrounding free speech and FOIA requests.

I believe (at least I hope) that the Wiki Leaks issue will cause our society to reexamine the decision that we have made that Free Speech must trump all other rights and reason.

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