Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tweeting with fire

Tweets, Blackberries, cells ... they connect us, build communities, and are literal lifelines in emergencies. In ruthless dictatorships, these services help oppressed populations organize to present their case for freedom.

These are Good Things.

But are they Unmitigated Good Things? Is freedom of speech an absolute right, no matter what idea is being expressed and what the consequences? What about when the idea being expressed is "Quick! Let's loot a store here -- the police are busy there"?

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously pointed out that there is no First Amendment right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. (He also pointed out that, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.") And thus I segue into the issue of competing rights having  -- I hope -- established my libertarian bon fides in prior posts, most recently "Privacy? We don't need no stinkin' privacy."

 Consider two recent cases in western democracies questioning whether the use of netted comm represents a qualified right -- and thus, whether the need can legitimately arise to curtail some communications. We saw this recently in the UK when the prime minister, David Cameron, proposed temporarily shutting down social networks suspected of being used to organize the looting and burning in several major UK cities. Cameron was roundly criticized for acting like a Middle Eastern despot.

Ditto the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority (BART) of the not exactly conservative San Francisco area. BART briefly unplugged cell-phone stations in some of its subway stops, with the stated goal of heading off demonstrations that might disrupt transportation services and, perhaps, endanger commuters.  (Note: these are cell stations that BART owns and operates under private contractual arrangement with local cell carriers, not a public utility.)

The twitter hash tag promptly went up: #MuBARTek, to liken BART with the recently ousted brutal Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek. Mubarek's security apparatus, of course, disabled comm services in his bid to retain power. But are BART's actions and Mubarek's remotely the same? BART made a nearby out-of-the-station area available for protests. Mubarek was not as accommodating.

The right to protest perceived injustice is critically important in a democracy -- and a widely recognized right in both the US and the UK. But as Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out (see above), rights aren't absolute, and can conflict with one another. What of the rights of shop owners to have their property not burnt down? What about the rights of BART commuters to travel in safety?

I think it's fair to debate whether interruptions of specific modes of communication -- none of which even existed a few years ago -- is the same as trampling on people's rights to free speech and free assembly. IMO, likening the BART and UK situations to brutal Middle Eastern despotic crackdowns does nothing to advance the serious, necessary, and overdue conversation about if/when/how to balance competing rights in a democracy in the light of evolving comm technology.

For more on this issue, see: "Techno-Utopians Are Mugged by Reality," by WSJ columnist L. Gordon Crovitz. 

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