Privacy and freedom of speech online

Public & Private in the Blogosphere
I found this survey over in the WordPress forums. If anyone has a chance, you might like to check it out. It’s an interesting survey, not too long, and for any bloggers out there it’s very thought-provoking.

It’s based around the idea of “public vs. private” in the blogosphere; how we think technology has changed our perception of public identity, and what we actually mean when we talk about concepts like privacy in today’s world. I found it interesting because it’s something which is coming up a lot now as blogs and the new media become more accepted; they often talk about issues from a personal perspective, so it’s a timely examination of the blurring line between public and private discourse.

For me, I’ve always been very public with my online identity, but I try to maintain distance as well. A part of being a writer in an age where everyone has something to say is trying to raise your profile so your voice can be heard, and it’s impossible to do that and maintain real privacy online. That’s the pay-off – to have your work read and published, you sacrifice some anonymity. Some of that hasn’t been my own choice; the first few stories I had published included my email address with them, so anyone who Googles me can find my information fairly easily. But for the most part I’ve accepted it and have tried to find a balance. For instance, for this blog I write about topics, but rarely get too personal with them; I use a public picture but not a revealing one, and I have a ClaimID page to keep track of my work online. So far it seems to be working; everything I say is open, but because I keep a slight distance, it allows me to keep some privacy.

But a lot of blogs aren’t like that. They’re more personal with their content, even when not necessarily talking about themselves, and are open for anyone to read. The whole idea of a blog is to provide an online commentary or journal, something personal, but presented in a public fashion; it’s a format which has never really existed before. I find that interesting – it shows that what we used to think of as private has changed, the lines between public and private discourse blurred. For instance, if you write about something private, like your grandmother’s funeral, and post it on a public blog, does that make it a public or a private post? In reality it’s probably both; our perspective has changed and it’s really somewhere between the two – we just don’t have a classification for it.

For how open the blogosphere can be, though, privacy is still an important part of it. It presents a barrier between the online world and the real one, and it’s why there are still private blogs and journals which people keep to themselves. Privacy isn’t just a right we have, it’s a protection. There’s a danger in writing something personal online; people are attracted to personal details and it can attract the wrong kind of person. That’s why being careful with the details you give out is important, particularly for women; using a nondescript avatar and choosing a good username become very important, things which can be identified as belonging to you, but which keep you at a safe distance. I think that’s part of the reason why Facebook has become so popular as well; it’s filled the need for social networking but retained privacy – your profile is as protected as you want it to be. It’s a good balance.

Probably the best example of the blurring between public and private domains in recent times is Post Secret. Post Secret is basically an art project where people mail their secrets anonymously to Frank Warren as postcards, who posts them on the blog. I only discovered Post Secret recently (though I knew of it), but if you’ve ever seen Post Secret or the published books, you’ll know it’s an incredibly powerful, intimate blog; I’ll never forget a woman who wrote “I wish I had been a better sister than you were a brother. Yours was not the only life you took”. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to its success, but the reason Post Secret is so powerful is because it’s based on a simple idea: confession. It makes the content intensely personal but public, letting people maintain privacy through anonymity. It’s a unique model and it’ll be interesting to see what forms come from it in the future.

There was another thing I was thinking about during the survey, and Post Secret reminded me of it again as well; what constitutes free speech online and how that’s changing. Blogs are so personal, it’s easy to see how people might take offence. If someone recognises themselves in Post Secret, is that an infringement of their rights? It would depend on how they’re depicted – if they’re just passing by, no, but it might be if they’re featured against their will. Would a book review slamming an author’s ideological viewpoint count as slander? Again, not to most people, unless it’s used to attack the author himself… but what about if someone wrote a blog specifically about another person, is that free speech? Basically that’s what’s happened to WordPress. If you haven’t heard, WordPress.com has been banned in Turkey under the order of a Turkish court. Lawyers for Adnan Oktar, a Turkish proponent of creationism, convinced the court that he had been slandered by the blog, adnanoktar.wordpress.com, and as a result, all WordPress.com blogs are now inaccessible to Turkey.

To me this seems like a terrible attack on freedom of speech; it’s censorship and everyone belonging to WordPress is being held ransom by a Turkish court and government. It’s what you’d expect from China or Pakistan, not Turkey, a supposedly secular nation. There’s a huge debate going on right now as to how WordPress should respond. The simplest response is to remove the offending blog(s), but I think that would set a terrible precedent. If the blog violates terms of service, copyright law or impersonates another person, it should be removed; but the blog doesn’t seem to be doing that. The blog is about Adan Oktar and it might be an individual case of slander, but that’s not the issue now. With slander, you sue the offending party – you don’t ban access to millions of blogs to stop just a few from being seen. It’s enforcing the silence of innocent Turkish bloggers and denying others the freedom to read. It’s simply not acceptable.

In support of Turkish bloggers and freedom of expression, many bloggers are launching their own response. There’s a petition at Mideast Youth for the Turkish government and court to reinstate access to WordPress in Turkey, and many bloggers are switching to “Don’t Block the Blog” avatars in protest. There are also protest banners springing up all over the ‘net; I’ve incorporated one into my sidebar and below. If you feel strongly about protecting freedom of speech, I’d encourage you to do the same. Any Turkish bloggers should think about using something like Tor or a proxy server to access their blogs as well – this is the time we need to hear your voices more than ever.

So that’s why I enjoyed the survey. It’s timely and takes a different look at our perception of identity, makes you think about what online privacy means to you. And at a time like this, that’s a very good thing.

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4 thoughts on “Privacy and freedom of speech online

  1. hi cj!

    i found ur comment in my blog! i appreciate ur appreciation! and ahem, i got the links for the support badges (the turkey one and wp one) in THIS blogpost!

    keep it up, i like ur blog.

    ps: oddly enough, ur comment is not appearing in my blog even after moderation. i am beginning to develop a love-hate relationship with wordpress – i love wordpress, but wp hates me!

    CJ: Hey Sanjida, thanks for the comment! I found your blog through your comment on Kyla Pasha’s blog and thought it was a great post, so I just had to leave a comment. 😉

    It’s great that so many people are supporting Turkish bloggers and good causes; I think it’s important to stand up for what’s important to you, in real life and in the virtual world. Right now Turkish bloggers can’t do that – so we’ll just have to do what we can to help. 🙂

    I can see my comment on your post, but it’s not appearing in my Recent Comments either… I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I volunteer in the WordPress forums and a lot of people have been reporting problems with commenting today; looks like something went a bit wrong during the maintenance, so you’re not the only one. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.

  2. Yes, let’s keep censorship on the backburner. Know your rights and stand up for them.

    CJ: Too right, Maunel. The beginning of censorship is the death of democracy. If that’s not something to fight for, I don’t know what is.

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