Online Censorship and Social Media – What’s The Problem?

Censorship and Social Media - a Rant

Facebook Censorship – Gloria Jean’s Serves a Big Cup of STFU!


Internet censorship and intellectual property rights are some of the few issues that the mainstream really gets passionate about – just shout SOPA in a crowded theatre! The “level playing field” that the Internet offers and the access to a global audience is the single most important part of this amazing technology – just shout Kony in that theatre too.

So what about social media? It’s a muddy area. Privately owned (or a public company) and profit seeking, and yet all the content and the momentum is driven by private citizens, just like the Internet. The whole reason brands open social media accounts is so their branding message can be spread virally, shared and accessed by potential customers – the opposite of IP protection! So, what happens when the wrong message gets spread virally? What then? Suddenly IP protection and censorship laws are open for some very dangerous interpretations.

On the Internet, brands are forced to sue for liable or just ignore the content and wait for it to blow over. But what about censorship on Facebook? A medium where negative messages spread rapidly and corporations are scrutinised on a whole new viral level? What then?

Gloria Jeans serves up a cup of STFU on Facebook

For those who drink tea, Gloria Jeans is a coffee shop chain based in Australia and Asia. It has recently been accused of financially and vocally supporting homophobic causes and has come under fire in the past for supporting pro-life charities. To prove the power of freedom on the Internet, just Google Gloria Jeans homophobia to get the facts dating back to 2007. On Facebook too…and here’s where you’ll find the difference.

Facebook groups and pages popped up to spread awareness of the alleged homophobia of the Gloria Jeans senior management. Like any controversial cause, both sides debated with passion….and the gathering crowd stood by to watch and to troll. These pages attract lots of members fast and are one of the main reasons big brands shy away from social media marketing (have you been to the Living Social Facebook page lately – EEK!). When one of these pages shared content regarding Gloria Jeans, they were allegedly promptly told to STFU (kindly stop that) citing intellectual property violation as the reason. That is, the dissenting page used Gloria Jeans’ intellectual property on their page.

The problem with using IP law for censorship

Intellectual property is a hot topic. There is no doubt about it. The Pirate Bay is the 79th most popular website on Earth according to Alexa….. The problem is that using intellectual property law to undermine freedom of speech is a total legal reach-around and highly damaging to everyone involved. The two issues must be kept separate.

Firstly, it’s a bad idea. Enabling the misuse of intellectual property law to attempt to quieten dissention only makes dissenters angrier and more creative in how they spread their message. Secondly, it’s a bit of a cop out because the use of IP law means that using liable or slander laws (the more appropriate laws in this situation) may not be advantageous to the corporation. Why? Maybe because the best defence to liable is truth. And even if it’s not true, disproving it brings close scrutiny to the practices of the brand. There are muddy areas. Using IP to quieten dissent is like admitting that the dissenters are right.

Of course, it’s not great to see your own branding elements in use against you – and you’d want to stop it, but if you’re going to cry IP violations, apply it to everyone, not just the group that is dissenting. Better still, if you’re not going to play nice with the kids, get out of the social play ground!

The Great Cop Out

The problem with social media outlets is that they are profit seeking entities and therefore, it’s in the best interest of these companies to keep advertisers happy and protect the rights of corporations first. So, how do you reconcile that with user driven content without upsetting people? Besides Chomsky’s manufactured consent (the main way), you grant the corporations their wishes and honour the laws of your country – and apply censorship to your product – it’s not the internet after all. And that is Facebook’s cop out.

So, what’s the answer?

This is where an answer would make me a squillion dollars. It depends where you sit in the whole debate. For me, it’s “do what’s right” and Facebook failed on both counts. It’s allowed paedophiles to get away with grooming and Gloria Jeans to get away with using IP law to enforce censorship. Both may be legally right but are definitely morally wrong. If you’re going to champion freedom of speech, champion it across the board – not just when it suits.

Facebook is an opt in, something we can’t control because it’s a corporation. The Internet on the other hand, is a free and open forum that must be protected at all costs. The best way to protect our rights on the internet is to stop corporations using intellectual property law for censorship purposes and to allow no one corporation (or government) any form of central control.


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