Posted May 25, 2008 at 03:42 EDT under web.
Let's get one thing perfectly clear here, shall we?
There is no such thing as
freedom of expression on the greater unwashed internet.
None. Nil. Zilch.
Expecting the contrary approaches one definition of madness, so anyone with vestigial notions of the great freeing power of the internet better skip ahead in the programme before they get too invested in this particular pipe-dream.
But surely I must be joking? I'm taking a ridiculous contradictory stance just for the sake of argument, right?
No, I am not. And here's why: even if you live in a nation that guarantees freedom of expression, few of us actually access the various fora, blogs and social web services without having to go through some privately owned conduit. At the fundamental level, your internet provider does not have to guarantee anything remotely approaching freedom of expression. They can pull your connection anytime they want, and as soon as your $39.95/month fee isn't worth it to them, you are out on your ass. And, yes, you have to settle your last pro-rated bill. Payment within 30 days, please. Have a fucking nice day.
Likewise, every forum, blog and social web service out there is more than likely administered by a privately owned entity. Collaborative services are interested in your expression only insofar as it coincides with their desire for your free content and mind-share. As soon as this exchange no longer benefits them, you can consider your days numbered.
The best one can hope for is a Terms of Service (TOS) outlining how one is expected to comport oneself, and what one can expect in return. A TOS is no guarantee of any sort of freedom of expression, and there is little that can compel such an entity from ignoring their own TOS as they see fit.
See, the internet is like a big house. Full of tubes. And sometimes these tubes get clogged with pornography and videos of distraught teens crying over Britney. But it is mostly a big house. We may be invited in to mingle with the other guests, but at any time the host can just tell us to leave. Or to shut up about something. And then have the entire history of our stay deleted.
See, this is where the freedom of expression part comes in. In my living room, in my house, you are playing by my rules. There is no freedom of expression in my house because I have already used it all up. It's my freedom of expression, so if you start up with nasty name-calling or drinking all my best scotch without asking, you are gone. I would not have it any other way. And frankly, neither should you. Fostering an open and engaging environment sometimes requires the judicious application of the patented Eco-Monkey Brand Clue Sticktm. I take full responsibility for the use of this useful tool, but I have no qualms about my privilege to use it.
Quite frankly, while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, some opinions have more value than others, and it may be that yours is not actually valid around here. Hell, I don't need a reason, but I'm a generally easy going person with a fair amount of life experience. I'll try to explain as best I can the house rules, but like any rule it can be applied arbitrarily. At some point you might just be cordially invited to suck it up.
The same rules apply to any web service and ISP out there. Unless you are on a government site run by a government agency under government purview, you have no legally guaranteed freedom of expression on these sites.
Oh sure. These start-ups and cool services are all about being post-modern-web-2.x with their collaborative bent and geek chic posturing. I'm sure most of these sites and services believe they are doing it for the people, and engaged in a grand co-operative experiment. Who wouldn't? Especially for those who don't remember the world before pervasive internet, things are generally awesome out there. We get free stuff in return for our time uploading stories and pictures, or chatting about sex and hockey. Everyone is involved and engaged because they want to be involved and engaged. Game theory and anthropology alike tell us that co-operative stuff like this scratches a human itch that makes us want to play by the rules. We get more out of it if we do.
But it is not free expression, and will likely never be free expression. And some people don't get zero-sum, or take a perverse interest in the race for the bottom.
These sites will, of course, court us so that we join and co-operate and collaborate and provide free content and generally act as ambassadors so they can grow their brand and all that. These entities aren't evil (in the Google sense) and they need us. They need the mind-share. They need the buzz, and the free apps and the link-ins and all the trappings of a successful start-up.
But, in terms of how free your expression is, the balance of power is all on their side, and they know it (or learn it in a hurry).
And you know what? This is all just fine and dandy and business as usual. We get free stuff and in return we mostly just have to behave like good citizens. For most of us, this isn't too hard. However, if your voice is unfairly quashed on PstModrnWebSrvc 2.3, don't assume anything about free speech. Because, honey, you ain't got none around here. Find another block to play on, because this one is all full up.
So, even if these sites were interested in offering some notion of guaranteed freedom of expression, we would still have a situation where the balance between
freedom from and
freedom to would have to be negotiated. I don't imagine any sane start-up is at all interested in mediating that sort of exchange. It's easier just to hold all the cards.
Which is why every one of the major collaborative sites out there use a different model. That is, the one where they have all the freedom and a business model, and we mostly get to play if we follow the rules.