Until a decade ago, many people thought that the Internet might be a panacea for the many ills that afflicted our world in the late twentieth century. Access to information and real-time, inexpensive ways to connect across the globe seemed like a step toward invigorating debate and forging better worldwide communications. But as we all know, this view of the Internet as a global town hall comes with some big problems. Identity protection and reputation management have become fraught with potential pitfalls. Even the chitchat of social media has the power to create major business problems for entrepreneurs and corporations alike. Long-term damage to reputations (individual and corporate) can occur in the blink of an eye, thanks to the power of online networks. Seemingly innocent options like instant messaging and social networking have potentially serious ramifications for us in our personal and professional lives. Most of the problems center on three main topics: obscenity, threats and the security of intellectual property. The laws of the land continue to be written to address the downside of our immense technological creativity.
Most recently, a federal case involving Twitter hit the headlines for its ruling on freedom of speech and the Internet. Here’s what you need to know.
The case in question involved criminal charges brought against a man accused of stalking a religious leader on the Internet via Twitter. The original basis for the legal action centered on the idea of “stalking” and “causing harm in the form of emotional distress.” The man was accused of creating distress by posting thousands of messages about the religious leader – some predicting violent death under a variety of different user names. Although the FBI arrested the accused because of the “substantial emotional distress” he caused and not because of his opinions, the federal judge dismissed the case based on the accused’s constitutional right of freedom of expression – the right to express anonymous opinions addressing religious matters.
The judge acknowledged that the accused person might have caused emotional distress but added that this did not deter the court from making a ruling based on the issue of “protected speech.” He noted that the First Amendment protects free speech even when the subject or manner of expression is “uncomfortable,” challenges conventional religious or political beliefs or oversteps standards of “good taste.”
In doing so, he made a significant comparison – likening a blog to a bulletin board located in someone’s front yard. Referring to the Colonial period when the Bill of Rights was drafted, the judge noted that a colonist would have had to walk over to a bulletin board in a neighbor’s yard to see what was posted. He concluded that Twitter is like a bulletin board, in that it can be disregarded.
Significantly, the judge distinguished between Twitter and other forms of communication – phone calls, letters or emails – that are specifically addressed to and directed at specific recipients.
The debate is far from over on this and other related legal battles concerning freedom of speech online. Cases as varied as amendments to anti-stalking legislation and criminal charges against tweeters involved in ‘pranks’ could end up redefining freedom of expression in the cyber age.
The technology that created this latest headache has also produced some new ways to counter the problem. And, it’s no small wonder that a slew of new monitoring services have been launched to help companies safeguard their reputations. Some monitoring services provide their clients with the ability to tap into blogs and forums that are talking about their companies or products. Subscribers may monitor “chatter” and reply in real time or set up follow-up assignments for their employees. These real-time services monitor blogs, Twitter, social media and online forums in dozens of languages.