Freedom of expression online: How far should it go?

Summary:Freedom of speech and expression in 'real life' if you will is tricky enough as it is, but online there is a severe lack of regulation and moderation at the best of times. How far should it go?

The Generation Y have been brought up with instant and open communications. The ability to send and receive messages online is innate to us and we sure as hell take advantage of it.

But with the news that on the upcoming anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, something even at my relatively young age still vividly remember, and had the honour of paying my respects at Ground Zero only a few months ago, a pastor in Florida is to publicly burn a number of copies of the Qu'ran in protest of the Islamic faith.

Yesterday's evening broadcast of popular BBC daily political analysis programme, Newsnight, aired an interesting debate between two respected people on the issue.

Freedom of speech and expression in 'real life' if you will is tricky enough as it is, but online there is a severe lack of regulation and moderation at the best of times.

Anonymous messages of spam or bullying, hate speech or similar is as everybody knows is incredibly easy to do. To leave a comment after this post pretty anonymously (to "troll") - calling for me to be killed, kidnapped or beaten senseless on my way home from lectures would be all too easy. You can sign up, enter in false details and write your hate filled comment. The terms and conditions of using this site prohibit it as the very vast majority of community led sites do. But that doesn't stop anybody with an axe to grind.

The best example of this over the years was the 'Google libel' case, where the company was forced in court to reveal the name of a person signed up to Google's blogging service after they wrote libellous comments about a celebrity. The ability to remain anonymous online is relatively easy for standard civilians, but of course the threat of legal action is always there though rarely used.

Social networking should have tamed this in theory, you would have thought. Having your public name, a clickable link in that name to your profile and your accompanying profile picture would surely be enough identifiable information to prevent that person leaving extreme remarks on a status. Well it doesn't, for you optimists out there. You only need to see the popular Breaking News feed on Facebook to gauge how angry people can get over another persons opinion.

Then yet again, 4chan famed for image boards where 'anything goes' with very few exceptions and anonymity is by standard, carte blanche has been given to say anything there. It is a fantastic once-only antique of the web for expressing the freedom to say as and what you wish without caring about offending, because frankly the people there won't be there if they are easily offended. But as Christopher 'moot' Poole says in the TED video above, to say and to do something are two very separate things.

So with this in mind, I ask you wonderful people this:

How far should freedom of expression online go? Should the rules offline apply to the online world, or has the web diluted the meaning of 'freedom of expression' altogether? And did it ever really exist in the first place?

By all means express your rights to freedom of speech. But please do be nice, yes?

Topics: Social Enterprise, Google

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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