The concept of freedom of expression brings with it a number of complexities. Even the definition of freedom of expression varies across nations, cultures, and civil societies. For the purposes of this post, I am going to broadly define freedom of expression as the political and legal right granted to an individual to express whatever he or she chooses in a public setting with the express understanding they will still have to contend with the influence of the social contract; the social contract has great influence on the content of the expression and its appropriateness in a specific context.
However before we can look at the intricacies of freedom of expression, legal and political rights, and the social contract found within communication, we must first begin with the notion of ‘freedom to express’ and this is where global public policy plays a critical role.
The Internet Governance Project’s concept paper The Global Alliance on ICT: Bringing Policy Making to the Public and the Public to Policy Making shares the importance of multi-stakeholder participation and decision-making including civil society, NGOs, and the public and private sectors. This approach requires increased access to information and communication technology (ICT) by developing nations in a manner that does not foster a mode resembling electronic colonization. Next it requires cohesion between actors. The Internet Governance Project recommends utilizing a collaborative approach focused on three areas: 1) people-to-people, 2) people-to-resource, and 3) people-to-facilities. Governments cannot be the only regulators of Internet and ICT usage, civil society must participate in the public policy discussions and forums to nurture a united international community.
It has been proposed that access to ICTs have ushered in the ‘second Age of Enlightenment’ or awakened an ‘Information Age’, which is easy to appreciate when one considers the positive advantage gained from easier access to objective data. However, the Internet is filled with subjective information. Social networking sites and online spaces soliciting comments cultivate a perceived familiarity within an individual’s personal sphere, which I propose has led to ambiguity regarding the differences in propriety as it relates to the public and private self. With the lines blurred, I question what relationship does this ambiguity, with regards to the differences between public and private self, have to do with freedom of expression?
Quite a lot, actually. Experiencing firsthand the effects that blurring the public and private have on online identity, in which the private has become an acceptable form in the public, several governments, various employers in the public and private sectors, and civil societies have taken actions in a manner that some view as an infringement upon the very ideals surrounding the freedom of expression. Examples include:
- Legislation in European countries to curb hate speech within their national borders.
- A number of legal risks that have lead to arrests.
- Employers have terminated employment due to Facebook posts and pictures or the content of tweets.
- Websites disabling the ability to comment on articles. Debate ensues.
- Social media sites being utilized as a public forum, like the ‘Hunger Games Tweets’ tumblr site, to hold Internet users accountable to a civil society deemed appropriateness of expression.
Freedom of expression is a tenet of a democratic society. However, it is important to remember the role that civil societies play. Civil societies, and their implied social contracts, have great influence on whether the ‘expression’ is viewed as societally appropriate. And is appears they will continue to for a long time to come. As these concepts continue to evolve in the digital age, I look forward to assessing the effects increased access to ICTs, by a more diverse global population, will have on the interpretation and internalization of freedom of expression by civil society and its subsequent impact to public policy.