As social media becomes part of life and often an extension of our thoughts, it is time to question whether it is a tool to enhance or restrict our rights. Social networks involve our right to free speech but also our right to privacy.
Recently, Alvaro Garcia, the Vice president of Bolivia, warned those who criticize President Evo Morales on social networks, that he is watching what they say and taking names. “I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter,” he said earlier this week.
In the Philipines, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 went into effect on October 3 amidst widespread protests by the Filipino online community, journalists and free speech activists. The law contains various provisions that curtail the right to free speech, including the criminalization of libel. The Internet community was up in arms about the chilling effect the law may have on social media communication. The law was challenged and has been suspended by the Supreme Court for 120 days, giving the government time to amend the law.
In the UK, this past March, a 21-year old man was sentenced to 56 days in prison for racist comments on Twitter about a seriously ill black footballer. In August, a 26-year old man was given a two-year suspended sentence and community service after posting racial insults on the website of Liverpool football club.
To be clear, most rights are not absolute, and the right to free speech is not an absolute right. The right to free speech means that we are allowed to express ourselves without interference or constraint by the government, but the government can limit both the content of speech and the ability to engage in speech as long as the government has a “substantial justification.”
How broadly should governments interpret “substantial justification”? Does merely criticizing the government pose some type of extreme danger to society as to create a “substantial justification” for the right to free speech to be curtailed? And, is the government justified in accessing our private social network accounts to ascertain whether our speech should be regulated?
Our right to privacy is also not absolute, and governments can intrude into our right to privacy to protect society. However, governments generally have had to justify their intrusions in our privacy to achieve the higher goal of protecting society and have had to make use of legally mandated due process safeguards, such as obtaining a wiretap warrant to listen to our private conversations. This is not longer the case with social networks being easily accessible.
We might think that social networks allow us to express ourselves in ways that we could not before, and to do it anonymously. But how much of what we post on social networks is private and to what extent should the government intrude in comments that we mean to keep private? Will social networks provide greater freedom for people to express ourselves and our thoughts, or will they turn out to be a weapon that allows our governments, our employers and others to control and monitor our communications?