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Is there really too much freedom of speech online?

Once again the old media have missed the point of privacy online, preferring to maintain their patch instead of focusing on issues such as data mining.

I used to think the image of bitter old-media dinosaurs railing against the frightening freedoms of the internet was a tired cliche. Can there really be such anger, such blind us-and-them? But on Friday I was shown that there can be and is.

Discussions at the “Privacy in the 21st Century” symposium organised by the Communications Law Centre at the University of Technology Sydney even saw the chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, complain that there’s too much freedom of speech.

You don’t have real freedom of speech if you’re buried in a cacophony of irrelevant and vitriolic comment streams. That’s why a lot of serious people are pulling out from comment streams,” Disney said. Serious news publishers want to avoid the inevitable “welter of defamatory, vitriolic, abusive comments”.

It’s caused by excessive abuse of freedom of speech by the people that are coming into those streams and not being properly moderated,” he said.

Disney called for us to “get real” about “the realities of freedom of speech” and the need to share this freedom as equitably as we can: ”I don’t mean the same to everyone, I’m not that unrealistic, but far more equitably than we do now. Some people actually have an excess of freedom of speech in this country, and are exercising it in a way which is hurting others and limiting their ability to exercise their freedom of speech.” Applause soon followed.

Yes, those terrible internet commenters are coming into comment threads and threatening the freedom of speech of the media giants. Apparently it’s irrelevant that some online communities have been running for years without descending into a shitfight and the media giants have failed to learn from them.

Disney also railed against social media campaigners who often “know nothing about what they’re talking about”.

I suppose it was inevitable that a conference which kicked off with Lord Justice Leveson speaking in the wake of his report on the UK’s phone hacking debacle would focus on privacy in the context of traditional media outlets invading the privacy of ordinary citizens in the course of producing their tabloid outputs. It was also inevitable that traditional journalists spoke passionately against any new restrictions on their own work.

My view is that the push for what is commonly referred to as statutory privacy tort is a dangerous overreaction that relies for much of its support on what’s best described as cultural cringe,” said Chris Merritt, The Australian’s legal affairs editor. Australia is not the UK, Merritt argued, and most of the problems with invasion of privacy here have been the work of tabloid television, not respectable newspapers — and TV is already meant to be regulated by ACMA.

His colleague, distinguished media commentator Mark Day, agreed: ”We’re not dealing with a huge problem, and I think we’ve got to keep that in mind as we look at these issues.

I’m not in favour of a privacy law which in any way, shape or form extends the nature of restrictions on our media … News events are news events, and sometimes in life you get lucky and sometimes you can be unlucky … Sometimes through no fault of your own you’re thrust into a position where you will capture the attention of journalists and camera people.”

But I was shocked that such scant attention was paid to the very real risk to everyone’s privacy, the trade-off that nearly all of us have made, knowingly or not, of giving away vast amounts of personal information in exchange for trinkets of internet functionality or the tiny chance of winning an iPad. The trade-off that’s at the very heart of paying for media on the internet.

Some speakers got it. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam spoke with his usual quiet passion about data mining, the 300,000 and more warrantless requests by law enforcement for communications data, and the continuing push for internet service providers to log all our online interactions.

Even Day made a passing reference: “I, like the rest of you, have concerns about how my data is being used and reused and monetised and all those things.”

I just wish that every time I rang anybody I didn’t get asked for my full name and age, date of birth and the name of my pet dog,” he added, perhaps indicating confusion between data gathered for subsequent data mining operations and the authentication needed for a business to discuss his personal affairs with a random voice on the telephone.

But Day soon returned to his core point. If your privacy is breached it’s either blind luck or your own damn fault: ”You know, if you take your mistress to the tennis and you sit behind a server and you get your picture in your paper and your wife sees it because you were there with your girlfriend at the tennis, that’s not the media’s fault. That’s your fault.

Equally you can have bad luck. You can be hit by a car crossing the street and find a picture of yourself on Facebook [published in the paper]. You might not want it, but you’re part of a news event and I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s got to be if we’re going to report anything …

Facebook is public property. If you put a picture up on Facebook, please don’t be surprised, please don’t complain if you become newsworthy and Facebook is used as a source for your picture. If you don’t want that, don’t put it there.”

Never mind that Facebook may have misled you with confusing privacy controls and by labelling all your contacts as “friends”, as if you could trust them all.

Note: only journalists from The Australian are quoted here because only writers for The Australian were speaking at the conference: Day, Merritt and also Janet Albrechtsen. No one from Fairfax or the ABC or from commercial or community radio or TV were speaking, nor anyone from the so-called new media.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Is social media doing much more than taking the intent of the “professional” media (much owned and operated as it is, to what end but influence of perception - with it’s partisan bias, where opinion trumps and even obliterates fact, let alone balance) to it’s “logical” extension?
    The difference being that one gets paid for their views, and the other does it for free?

  • 2
    drmick
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Spot on Klewso. There is not one of them that will print the truth if it is not in their interest.
    They will take as much money as you give them to print anything you want them to print, say or show. Hell, they even pay actors, pros and anyone else who will take money to say what they want them to say. Then they hide behind a freedom of speech fog; freedom of speech for who? like everything else these days, it is only for people who can afford it.
    It is sort of like the worlds oldest profession really.

  • 3
    Edward James
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    When main stream media publish lies it is not impossible, but it can be expensive to do something about it. Some people just let it slide. A court may rule what is defamatory. Until that happens the word alleged plays an important part. drmick is correct there is good reason to call them the bought and paid media. So called freedom of expression / speech can be expensive, and yes often you may be betting your house on what you publish, naming and identifying politicians as liars and publishing allegations of corruption. Because the truth is not always a defense. If someone alleges injurious language. Fighting a drawn out defamation action will send most people broke. Edward James

  • 4
    Noely Neate
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I think that there are so many blogs and the like due to the duopoly we have in the media. I don’t mean ownership, I mean the fact that they all seem to subscribe to left or right or just plain opt out. The population does not actually belong in 2 distinct groups, and are therefore getting sick of being told what the news is, what we should find important, what we should be outraged at etc., and instead of just meekly hiding in a corner, many are now using social media to actually see more than just the 2 MSM opinions available. That threatens the MSM I suppose as it means that plebs are now questioning them, something we are not supposed to do :)

    It is a shame actually, as there are some very good journos out there and it seems they have instructions to fill certain quotas of styles of stories and I would love to see what they would write and consider to be of national importance if they did not have to use the Right vs Left group think?

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    They also hide behind that PCP sucker-bait/window dressing of their’s, whereby they reckon they can do whatever they like - while “flipping (that) the bird” too.

  • 6
    Pinklefty
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    The internet can be a very depressing place, where barely literate individuals vent stupid prejudices, and smarter people (unencumbered by principles) attempt to manipulate public opinion.

    BUT — once you start to censor the rubbish, how do you know when to stop? Obviously, I’d know what to do; but can I really trust anyone else to only censor the ‘bad’ stuff? Noam Chomsky made a valid point when he stated: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

    I tried to cancel my Facebook account, but they would only ‘suspend’ it. It serves me right for ever having stuck my fingers in that unsavoury pie. But to censor it, or anything else, leads to a darker path than the one we are presently on.

    Many people fail to understand that with freedom comes responsibility. That is to be regretted, but it does not excuse the attempt to regulate the free flow of information. Regulated thought is intellectual slavery and only a short step to a more onerous, physical form of regulation.

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Tell me about it. Look at what Murdoch did with that “freedom” - to do what he liked with his conservative political PR catalogues and their market share.

  • 8
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Privacy in the 21st Century”…

    With only Murdoch press speaking. They know all about privacy. What a (waste of a ) conference!

    Get ‘em, Levison. Unleash the dogs. Unfortunately, both he and the British PM have made clear that that won’t happen. Wimps.

  • 9
    fractious
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Surely the greatest irony here is Disney, on behalf of the bunch of patsies that is the APC, complaining about “too much freedom of speech” and “a cacophony of irrelevant and vitriolic comment streams”

    Well he orta know. How many times has he and his band of MSM stool pigeons found in favour of the likes of Henderson, Akerman and Devine when their several illiberal, inflammatory and vitriolic untruths were challenged by those of us who knew different?

    Personally I’m very very glad that Disney was so discomfited.

  • 10
    Bob Smith
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Any writer who claims Mark Day is a ‘distinguished media commentator’ has no credibility.
    Mark Day is nothing more than a propagandist for Murdoch. Try reading Day’s articles in the Australian on the phone hacking scandal in the UK. It was the News Corp line verbatim - one rogue reporter etc etc.

  • 11
    Moira Smith
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    some online communities have been running for years without descending into a shitfight’ - I used to moderate a couple of online communities and preventing them from descending into a shitfight was a constant effort. Fortunately I had the option of unsubscribing people. This is not censorship. It’s just having rules about how to behave and then - after unsuccessfully trying to explain to people why they way they expressed their valid views was offensive and upsetting - removing repeat offenders for the sake of the majority.

  • 12
    POV 888
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I feel pretty lucky to live in a great country that allows freedom of speech. Hey even the cynics get a piece of public space albeit small to air their offensive opinions.

  • 13
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 13 December 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    You aint kiddin’ POV.
    Isn’t it funny what some of us find “offensive” and others “acceptable” – usually it depends on who utters such “crudities” and of whom?
    But that’s not confined to “social media” is it?
    What about the offence in our msm in the partisan way they report back to us, what’s happening, strained through their opinion and prejudices? How much of that “(entertainment) industry” only seems to notice someone’s doing the wrong thing, when it’s “the Left”, caught at it? With their market share of influence, under their “self-regulation”, they have codes of conduct/PCP’s they’re supposed to be bound by, but choose to ignore – like when it comes to “balance”?
    No one party has all the answers. But how many people seem to think theirs does, and won’t be seen or heard, uttering a critical word against that party – no matter what they do – rather preferring to apologise for them and attack those that do see fault with their policies?

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