Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Social Network Free Speech? Really?

Why won't Twitter and Facebook sign on for free speech on the Internet? According to a recent article in The New York Times, these social media stalwarts are notably absent from the Global Network Initiative, a code of conduct that is dedicated to protecting free speech around the world. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are the three tech giants already enlisted by the GNI, though their involvement dates back to 2008, when each encountered public criticism for their acquiescence to China's restrictive policies regarding the web. Advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology are also members.

But, despite intense attention afforded the roles of both Twitter and Facebook during recent uprisings in the Middle East, neither company has seen fit to join GNI. Many have hailed these social media sites as being instrumental in helping people to organize protests, and otherwise get their voices heard in highly repressive situations— one Egyptian man went so far as to actually name his child Facebook out of sheer gratitude.

While Twitter declined to comment on the story, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes simply told them, "As Facebook grows, we'll continue to expand our outreach and participation, but it's important to remember that our global operations are still small, with offices in only a handful of countries." Still, even without having officially signed its name to any pact, Twitter has shown that they are willing to protect the rights of their users. When the government subpoenaed the site to turn over user information in a Wikileaks-related case, Twitter challenged the order, and informed the users who had been singled out, so that they might individually fight the order themselves.

GNI's guidelines say that participants, when asked to remove content, or restrict communication, should do the following: Require that governments follow established domestic legal processes when they are seeking to restrict freedom of expression. Interpret government restrictions and demands so as to minimize the overall negative effect on freedom of expression itself. Interpret the governmental authority's jurisdiction so as to minimize the negative effect on to freedom of expression. It works well in "theory", but does it hold up in process?


My question is how does one define "Freedom of Speech" in a global network where each and every country has its own set of laws? In a rather classic case of "Twitter Controversy"... Amanda Bonnen didn’t mean to tweet her way into anything. In fact, she wasn’t even really much of a Twitter user at all, compared to many of us who tweet daily and RT hourly. When she sent the tweet that landed her in a cesspool of litigation, in fact, she had only 20 followers, was following 29 herself, and barely tweeted even once a day. That didn’t matter to Horizon Realty, however. When Bonnen sent along her ill-fated tweet to her 20 followers on May 12th, 2009, she had no idea that each of those people was worth $2,500 in damages to Horizon Realty. Not long after she’d sent that tweet, she was hit with a $50,000 lawsuit for it.

Given those numbers, I’m potentially worth billions… and I've looked at all sides of the arguments.

Amanda’s tweet in question? To a friend: “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon Realty thinks it’s okay.” According to the news item in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Horizon Realty company filed the $50,000 lawsuit for libel and damages at the Cook County Circuit Court. The now-defunct @abonnen user name was listed as an “alias” for Amanda Bonnen in the suit.

The apartment in question, in case you want to avoid it, is somewhere in Chicago. I suspect that by now, it’s the focus of a shrine to Bonnen’s potential losses. Perhaps it should also be a shrine to the new loss of freedom on Twitter that this could mean. Personally if I didn’t want people to know about the alleged issues in the apartment, I would have avoided a public lawsuit that disclosed the exact location of the apartment in question.

All they did was enable millions around the world to become aware of issues with their properties instead of the few people this tenant told. They should sue themselves for the billions it probably relates to, in regards to the amount of eyes that have now come to see the address. Sometimes I really wonder if the people in those high-priced designer suits ever really think things through. Not only will people avoid the building now, but they will inevitably avoid this real estate company, based upon their counteractions.

Horizon Realty eventually responded to widespread backlash facing the apartment company after the story about its lawsuit against a tweeting tenant put it in the international limelight. The press release stated: "The response to our libel lawsuit has been tremendous, We would like to take this opportunity to clarify some confusion concerning the circumstances surrounding our lawsuit against Amanda Bonnen. I would first like to take this opportunity to apologize for tongue in cheek comments that were made previously regarding our approach to litigation. This statement is not in line with our philosophy towards property management and was taken out of context. No mold was ever found but her unit was one of several that had experienced an overnight leak, the tenant moved out on June 30th, and then, on June 24th, much to our surprise given her previous silence, Bonnen sued Horizon Realty Group."

In response, "conducting our due diligence," Jeff Michael of Horizon Realty Group says her tweet was identified and the company "acted to protect our reputation just as we would for any other related comment made in a public forum."

How will the possibility of a lawsuit affect how you or I tweet? Will we be as likely to say things openly? Could this destroy Twitter as we know it? I personally believe that the REAL issue lies in defining which laws, if any, apply to the Internet or Twitter or Facebook or any one of thousands of social networks given the fact that we are dealing with a GLOBAL NETWORK. What if Amanda made those exact same comments while living in Ireland? What would happen then? The fact of the matter is that social networking, much like so many other areas of the Internet is not a simple black and white issue.


It isn't about US laws, it's about every single country that doles out laws and rules. But then, there are also additional factors to consider. Think you just have 20 followers? Think again. Your tweets are are able to be located on just about any search engine that exists anywhere. And it’s a routine practice for any smart company to look for its name regularly using those search engines. Also, what you tweet or put up on the Internet NEVER EVER goes away. There are millions of Internet archiving sites which take "snapshots" of all of the social networking as well as web sites and servers 24-7.

Face it. We are no longer alone, nor are we anonymous. It doesn't matter who you are or what your significance is. You can be a celebrity, a politician or just someone who decided to purchase an iPad. If you've convinced yourself that your personal information will never be discovered, you've deluded yourself. Privacy is a thing of the past. Google maps out streets and houses and businesses in such a way that the whole world is watching. The cameras are rolling and no one is able to avoid them. You don’t get to play by the old rules any more, and it doesn’t matter what business you’re in. You don’t get the old privilege of anonymity. You don’t get to bury your story on page 47. There is no more page 47. Every story is somebody’s page 1.

As a matter of fact, it isn’t your story any more. It belongs to everyone, and they’ll do what they please with it. If you want to influence the conversation, you’ve actually got to get into the conversation. Respectfully. Meaningfully. Just because that’s a social media cliché doesn’t mean you get to ignore it and hope it goes away. The one-to-a-jillion aspect of social media means that any of us can hit the equivalent of the front page of the New York Times at any time. All that has to happen is that we find ourselves in the middle of a really interesting story.    

Horizon Realty might just be the most loveable, fair, decent and true company in the world. Right now, their name recognition has about as much appeal as those Orkin pests. With mold. Whether fair or not, Horizon has made a worldwide name for itself virtually instantly, connecting its brand with callous disregard for its tenants, or worse. Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity. This is what it looks like.

Do social media users read all the facts carefully before flaming? Of course they don’t. Are there dozens of inaccurate accusations about Horizon flying around Twitter and everywhere else? Absolutely. Is that fair? No. Then again, filing a $50,000 lawsuit against a customer for a snarky remark made to a friend isn’t going to strike many as entirely reasonable either. The good news is that the next controversy is right around the corner... causing the old one to fade into oblivion as fast as Charlie Sheen and his declaration of, "Winning!"

So where do we go with all of this? What do we learn? Who knows? Because when push comes to shove, be it Twitter or your neighbor's annoying bright red fence... it's always going to be something.

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