Exercise caution in online speech


The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is a movement comprised of a batch of technology groups, including big names like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, dedicated to defending free speech on the Internet. It is kind of odd, then, that both Twitter and Facebook have declined to sign on to the initiative, even though they are two of the biggest social networking websites in the world. After all, Twitter and Facebook are veritable soapboxes for public voices on the web. It is slightly discomforting that neither one of these sites have signed onto the GNI, leaving users to ponder over their commitment to protecting free speech. This situation serves as an important reminder that Twitter and Facebook are not government entities, even though they are every bit as ingrained in the daily operations of American society as the government. In fact, what people often forget is that these websites are both companies. They are not necessarily beholden to the people in any meaningful way — other than ways which serve their profit margins.

We are not suggesting that these companies do not care at all about their users and their rights to free speech. That would be a dramatic conclusion to draw from their decisions not to sign onto the GNI. But it is undeniable that this refusal is highly symbolic. The Internet is a sort of modern-age Wild West, one of the last places on earth where anything goes. This is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because people can get away with and have access to a lot of things that they can't inside the confines of physical society. It is bad because some of these things people can get away with are things which they cannot do in physical society for very good reasons — for example, the FBI's attempts to secure information from the Internet without legal backing.

As an unregulated space, the Internet leaves web surfers vulnerable to a lot of threats, including threats to their free speech. Internet users need some sort of help when it comes to defending their rights on the web, and it would be great if Facebook and Twitter would pledge in some meaningful way to provide such defense. Unfortunately, they have not, which means web surfers have only themselves to rely on when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. Remember: Keep yourself educated and understand how you are protected on these sites because, apparently, they are not going to do that for you.


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