Digital Citizenship

Expression and Rights in the Information Age


The web, world culture, world politics, and most interpretations of basic human rights all have one thing in common. The right to one’s own opinions, free thought, and the equal, unrestricted expression of such—in other words—free speech. Many of the most important functions of the world order are, in part, defined by freedom of speech. To call the concept important would be an understatement. It is completely integral to the First-World way of life, and beyond. This is why the emergence of the web is a vital issue of discussion. An inherent aspect of the web in its current iteration is that it creates a functional monopoly on communication, caused by limitations on competition through integration. In the event that an alternative to the web should be presented, it would be inherently less valuable than the original, by nature of the fact that the newer system would be smaller, unless it was linked with the original, which would defeat the purpose. At the same time technological evolution is progressing far too quickly for current political systems to properly legislate for or regulate it. This has effectively undermined free speech by replacing the traditional forms of communication that were so relatively well-guarded before, while opening a massive set of tricks and loopholes for the powerful to exploit. In addition, the existence of the web presents new problems related to free speech, almost the flip side of the same coin. Privacy concerns are presented in a brand-new light when anything and everything you say is recorded, and truly deleting anything has become effectively impossible. Accusation has become the game of the day, blurring lines between defamation and opinions, between privacy and conspiracy, and between the right to be forgotten and free speech. All of this seems to be a natural function of the paradigm change that society has undergone. The question is, then, how could things be improved?


Firstly, let us address some of the apparent hysteria. Why do people believe that the web is so special, relative to all the other technical leaps in communications, and why has this lead to confusion over basic terms? Some theorise that the web is not all that unique of a phenomenon. Similar leaps in communications technology have indeed happened in the past, with perhaps even larger societal impacts. For example, the strengths of the parallels in the relationship between the printing press and the web are written about by Dewar, A. (2000): “…the Internet era is very similar in important areas to the printing press era, and, because the printing press had broad and profound effects on its age we should expect similarly broad and profound effects from the information age”. The general consensus is that the massive change in society that the web has triggered, and the blurred lines between the aforementioned basic terms, such as free speech and verbal abuse, are linked. Yet that does not seem to hold true when compared to the past. Quite the contrary, with the explosion of literacy the printing press produced, the meaning of words was never clearer than before that point. So, do terms need new definitions? It seems to depend on the term in question. Free speech, as the most important of these terms, needs no redefinition. For example, the largest arguments used against free speech are defamation and malicious rumor, but these are not new issues and have always been a facet of human interaction. They have not been, and cannot be truly altered; they merely progress faster with the medium that transports them. A more pertinent issue for discussion is the right to be forgotten. If one were given the right to delete one’s own online footprint, how far would that right extend? Would people be allowed to delete things that others had written about them? If so, would that not be censorship itself? In several countries, corporations have citizen’s rights. Under such legislation, they would be capable of deleting anything about themselves that they wished. An ability such as that would have disastrous consequences if left unchecked. Yet surely some degree of this is a necessary part of free speech? Interwoven in all of this is online surveillance. There are those who fear speaking their mind, due to the threat that surveillance poses. This is a large part of the urge to delete one’s footprint to begin with. Web surveillance is the issue that needs the most discussion by experts. Who has the right to monitor others over the web? At what threshold is a person dubbed worthy of surveillance? How far should these abilities go? Perhaps they should not be available at all?


Fine print, user license agreements, and friendly terms like ‘cookies’ are the biggest active adversaries to human rights online. As ridiculous as this may sound to the layman, issues like this are what make it possible, and legal for the corporations involved to copy, and sell every single piece of information about the public ever placed on their site. Research by Mcdonald, A., and Cranor, L. (2008) shows that, were the average person to go back and read every piece of fine-print in all such agreements they ever consented to online, they would spend between 181 and 304 hours a year reading: “To put these figures in perspective, using the point estimate of 244 hours per year to read privacy policies per person means an average of 40 minutes a day”. Hidden inside all that technical jargon in nearly every case is the agreement that any information you place on that site can be sold at the corporation’s discretion. Odds are, the reason this has become such a problem is ignorance of it. So many people are simply unaware of the impact of user license agreements and other fine print that there really cannot be any real mass discussion of it until this lack of awareness changes. Once that happens, public outrage or boycotts can run their course and serve their purpose, likely resulting in revisions of policy, or more likely, alternative sites. A related issue is the use of ‘cookies’. Most of the public are aware of what these do, and their potential to disrupt privacy, but take no action. This could be due to the fact that most of these small pieces of software do very little, or simply improve your experience on that site. However, this may instead highlight an underlying problem: there are no real alternatives to use. The list of sites and services that do not employ these tactics is short. This means that while these issues are being discussed, and these suspect practices are being rejected and boycotted, organising such activities can only be done effectively through the use of the very systems they were meant to counter, which is both counterproductive and self-limiting. There are likely small alternative resources out there, and it is indeed conceivable that a strategy for abandoning the ones perpetuating the issue could be formulated, but this will be a challenge. For as long as this issue remains unsolved, privacy is, and will continue to be, almost nonexistent. The most important step of this is awareness and discussion. Without that, nothing can or will be done.


While resolving fine-point debate, and harnessing the power of public outrage are good ways to start change, they cannot complete long-term progress alone. If they could, the world would be a much different, and probably much more interesting place. The way things stand, legislation must keep up with technology, or the web will break down into anarchy. Current political systems are too preoccupied with other aspects of society to provide the web with the attention it needs in order to function. To this end, drastic measures need to be taken. There are a multitude of ways this could be achieved. It depends on the state in question, but most states pass laws on the government of the web in the same way that laws for all other societal issues are passed. Unfortunately, since the entire legal system cannot be reformed for the sake of a single area of contention, this makes most of these potential methods mostly impossible. Therefore, the authority for this could be best shared with intergovernmental organisations, such as the UN, or EU. In particular, the UN’s interest in human rights statements, and its wide-reaching influence make it an ideal candidate. Alternatively, a separate intergovernmental organisation could be formed with this as its sole duty. Either way, if larger, or less complicated groups were to decide wider guidelines for world governments to opt into, this could save much time, regaining some of the ground already lost. If these sorts of approaches are put forward, marked, noticeable results should follow suit.


Since the advent of the digital age, countless complications have either arisen, or worsened, in the world economy, society, politics, and even the environment. However, although the web may be a contentious issue and present many problems, it has enormous value. Its existence presents an unrivaled and irreplaceable opportunity for the future. Moreover, there is no alternative on the horizon. This sort of technology will be added to and expanded, rather than replaced. This is why it must be protected and integrated, rather than restricted or removed, especially at this early point in its development. It is ironic that the web itself can be the primary tool for fixing these issues. As bleak as the outlook from this blog may have been, the fact remains that there is not much that ISPs and large corporations can do to stop mass-discussion of a topic like this, without making the problem for themselves worse by providing an excellent example of why these issues need to be discussed. With enough discussion and debate on this topic, positive change in this area will inevitably follow. This is the purpose of this blog: to promote the very discussions detailed within. The more these issues are discussed, the better web-related issues will progress, in time. There is no instant fix, but on the other hand, a slower, yet unstoppable rate of progress requires only a few keystrokes per person. The web redistributes power from the ‘haves to the have-nots’ by placing a tiny amount of knowledge and raw influence in the hands of every single person who uses it. Since the disadvantaged outnumber the privileged by such a wide margin, all that needs to happen for this power to be exercised in a sort of organically formed democracy is for people to simply talk about it.


Darrough Tock is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway