The Internet is a lot of things. It's a source of free and low-cost movies, television, music, and phone service. It's a gaming environment. It's a repository of programs to run computers and store the data created by them. It's a marketplace for goods and services. And it's a communications medium.
Among other things, the Internet has been called the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the best advancement in democracy since universal suffrage, and the greatest soapbox ever built. People freely speak their minds about issues of the day, and others out there respond back.
But speech on the Internet can be mean and snarly, and it can also have grave consequences. Some people get in trouble, and others get hurt. Still others get threatened or intimidated into keeping quiet when they have important things to say.
Two disturbing trends exist out there regarding free speech and the Internet, one involving companies, the other countries.
More companies are including non-disparagement clauses in their consumer contracts to try to dampen critical public feedback they receive. Also called "gag" clauses, such legalese threatens the openness of the digital economy.
In testimony before Congress, Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said, "Some businesses are using non-disparagement clauses to unfairly silence critics. Most consumers sign these agreements without noticing they effectively prohibit posting any negative comments on sites like Yelp or Angie's List. Gag clauses are typically buried deep in non-negotiable contracts or even in websites' terms of service, so consumers don't have a reasonable opportunity to negotiate or refuse to accept the conditions. Only later, when they are slapped with a demand that they take down a negative review or face legal action and potentially hefty monetary damages, do people realize what they have unwittingly agreed to."
To outlaw these gag clauses, Atkinson and others are urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015.
The online users review process has never been totally open and honest. Fake reviews are rampant. Individuals and companies, and even public relations agencies hired specifically for this purpose, plant reviews that praise a company's products or services or that criticize a competitor's.
Large sites such as Amazon.com, Yelp, and Angie's List do a good job of weeding out the most blatant planted reviews and of making more prominent the reviews that can be trusted, those that others find most useful.
There are also ways readers can ferret out many of the fake reviews. Techniques include discounting reviews that are gushingly positive or scathingly negative, leaning toward products or services that have received a lot of reviews, and ignoring reviews that describe the reviewer in too much detail or are merely a list of features. The best reviews compare the product or service to similar ones, putting it in context.
Still, the process of being able to talk openly, whether about a product or service you buy or a politician you elect to office, is a healthy one.
The U.S. and many other countries recognize the importance of free speech, whether online or off. But others regard it as a threat to their regimes and try to stifle it. Some even go so far as imprisoning journalists, whether they work for print publications or write more informally online. Journalists are jailed for criticizing the government, reporting on public or private corruption, and for writing about human rights abuses.
In its 2015 annual report (https://cpj.org/about/annual-report.php), the Committee to Protect Journalists listed China again as the worst perpetrator of official journalism harassment. Other countries with poor records in 2015 for jailing journalists include Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Journalists are often charged with such offenses as fabricating and spreading false information or espionage. Some are imprisoned without being charged of anything.
Regardless of the abuse of power by countries and companies, it makes sense to take some care when you post online.
One rule of thumb is to post as if you're sitting in the living room of those reading your messages. This mindset can prevent your saying something you don't quite mean and later regretting it.
Be especially careful when using the computer equipment of your employer. Employers have the legal right in the U.S. to monitor what you say over their systems, and you can be fired for statements you make or for going to websites that your employer deems inappropriate for use in a business setting.
Free speech is bedrock, but even in a free society it's never completely free.