Thursday, April 2, 2009

Punished For Having An Opinion

Amongst all the various pranks that were performed for April Fool’s Day this year was the announcement by the Guardian newspaper in Britain that it was to discontinue publication in print form and henceforth be published only on Twitter. While quite amusing, it is also an indication of just how radically technology has changed the way we live our lives, go about our business, and communicate with each other. In fact, it’s probably only a matter of time before such a newspaper service exists… if it doesn’t already. Even more astounding is the fact that the change wrought by new technology is continuing to unfold ever more quickly. Only five years ago there was no facebook, and now it is an integral part of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people.

While there are vast benefits that come with this explosion of new ways to communicate, there are also some drawbacks. The difficulty in controlling and containing offensive material on the internet is an obvious example. Another monumental challenge is the issue of privacy, especially when so many people appear to be so casual about placing large amounts of personal information on line in what is not only a public environment, but one which is vulnerable misuse and manipulation.

In many ways, the very existence of the internet is one of the strongest guarantees of free speech that we have. This is partly because it is so difficult to regulate and to censor. People of all ages are embracing a new way of living which is so revolutionary it could almost be considered a new mode of existence. The very interconnectedness of people can and does promote more open behavior and greater understanding for each other, potentially leading to something that might almost be considered a hive mind. At the same time this also leaves people, and their personal information, open to all sorts of abuses.

Right now, an investigation is underway into a number of New South Wales prison guards who were communicating with each other via a facebook discussion group. They claim that they were discussing suggestions for the service to save money without the need for privatization. However they have been accused of breaching employment conditions relating to the making of “public comment”, as well as bullying employees, and making disparaging remarks about the Commissioner. While I do not know the contents of those online discussions, the question here is whether or not using social networking sites in your own time at your own home constitutes a private discussion or a publication, and whether or not making supposedly indiscrete comments in such a forum should threaten a person’s employment.

The prison officers claim that their communications with each other were no different from a discussion among friends or colleagues at a pub or a coffee shop. They claim that they are in essence being punished for having an opinion. However, those discussions were, at least in part, conducted in a forum accessible to the public. The fact is that despite old laws often being overtaken by new technology, any remarks which constitute defamation will be seen by the law as equally defamatory on the internet as they would be in a newspaper. It is possible to get into a lot of trouble by being indiscrete on the internet, no matter how casual the conversation might appear to be.

Whether that is right or wrong is clearly a matter which deserves consideration, because unless the law is flexible enough to reflect the realities of modern life we run the risk of people losing their jobs, or even worse, through simply expressing themselves. If we are to stand by our commitment as a democratic country to the ideal of free speech, we can’t afford to punish people for simply having an opinion.


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