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Government, Politics & Issues

Free speech and 'benevolent dictatorships' on the internet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2012 - SAN FRANCISCO - The First Amendment is less important today as control of speech passes to private, “benevolent dictatorships” such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

That was the consensus of media lawyers and academics speaking at a panel at the Online News Association convention on Thursday.

“The First Amendment is becoming less relevant today, said David Ardia, a law and journalism professor at the University of North Carolina. The First Amendment does not apply to the private online gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook.

The anti-Muslim film that caused protests and riots in the Middle East this month is an example of the shift in importance from government decisions about free expression to private ones, the experts said.

Pam Samuelson, a law professor at Berkeley, said, “the pressure that our government put on Google to block (the movie),” but noted that Google’s view “was that it was not unlawful in the United States and should be available.”

Ardia chimed in, “We put a lot of faith in these benevolent dictatorships” like Google.

The panelists said one reason the online companies favor free expression is that it is good for business. The Web wants information to be free.

But there is a tradeoff to this freedom of information on the Web and the dark side is the loss of privacy, they said.

“The Web almost has to be free,” said Tony Falzone, deputy general counsel at Pinterest and a fellow at Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society. “The consequence of that is that everyone has to find a way to make money a different way and the price of that is privacy.”

Ardia likened privacy on the Web to a “one-way mirror. Advertisers can learn a lot about users but users do not know how it is being used.”

Some panelists wished consumers could turn their personal information into intellectual property and sell it to the companies they trusted. But others said that if privacy were property, the firms buying it would just sell it to people the consumer knew nothing about.

Samuelson cautioned against over simplicity, saying “that there isn’t just one thing called privacy.” Everyone wants to keep others from stealing credit card information, but not everyone wants to keep advertisers from obtaining information about their searches – information that might channel them more interesting ads.

Samuelson added, “Privacy is an evolving concept. It is evolving so rapidly it is hard for publishers to know what to do and advertisers to know what to do.” In addition, the millennial generation doesn’t care as much about privacy as its parents, she noted.

Sometimes, the younger generation is in for a shock, however. She told of one Berkeley student who got a good job at Cisco Systems Inc. and tweeted her friends about getting a “fat” salary that went with the job offer. Cisco employees, following tweets about the firm, saw the tweet and henceforth the Berkeley student has been known at the company as “Cisco fatty.”

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