Usually, when we talk of free speech we expect threats from governments, not private companies. Censorship has usually been a tool of repression deployed by insecure governments seeking to silence restive populations. Now, though, we may have to set our sights on corporations that increasingly hold the power to silence us. Take the recent case of Guy Adams, a journalist for the British newspaper The Independent. He posted a series of tweets on social-networking site Twitter, criticising television coverage of the Olympics on the US channel NBC, and provided the work email of an NBC executive, to whom viewers could complain. For his efforts, Adams was rewarded by having his Twitter account suspended for over a day for the ‘crime’ of posting someone’s private email address, although the address posted was the executive’s work email.
Twitter ultimately unbanned Adams and apologised for the mistake. The fact that they took this drastic action in the first place raises a lot of red flags. For one, we need to be aware that the words we write are being done on property that belongs to a private corporation and hence, we have no rights over it. As much as we like to see Facebook, Twitter and the like as our virtual water cooler, these are ultimately profit-seeking entities, which can simply banish all our words into oblivion should they see them as a threat to their corporate strategy.
A more proactive interpretation of freedom of speech is urgently needed. Adams would have lost years’ worth of tweets and had no legal recourse if Twitter authorities had not come to their senses. What’s ironic is that even Twitter realises the threats that governments pose to our freedoms, while helping corporations restrict speech. It is currently fighting off the US government, which is demanding it hand over tweets by an Occupy Wall Street protestor suspected of criminal activity. Yet, it was happy to give in to NBC’s demands on a highly trivial issue. Hopefully, Twitter will learn a lesson from this and reform its process for dealing with such matters.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2012.
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