The reason we cherish the concept of free speech is the same reason we also have libel laws: people disagree. On everything.
Isaac Newton’s law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It applies as much to opinions as to physics. Where opinions clash, sometimes truth emerges. But often there is only wreckage.
I seldom read the comments that follow online news stories or opinion pieces. Not because I don’t care what people think, but because reading conversations between anonymous identities is simply not very helpful.
But I do read anonymous online opinions about consumer goods that I might buy or services I’m shopping for, like hotel accommodations in places where I plan to travel. Until recently, I’d missed the connection between them and the comments sections following news stories. My bad.
When people post anonymous opinions, it’s often more work than it’s worth to find the grains of truth behind the invective poured out by people who would silence themselves very quickly if their true identities were revealed.
That’s what happened recently to Ottawa student Olivia Parsons. According to her story, she had a bad experience with a landlord.
After she moved to a new address, she posted a negative review of the management company on consumer complaints websites like Yelp, Pissed Consumer and Google.
Under an assumed name, of course.
What surprised her (and me) is that the landlord, CLV Group, discovered her true identity and new address — and sent her a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action if her critical posts were not taken down in five days.
Disputes between landlords and tenants are pretty common.
So is the clench in one’s gut when a corporation backed by a legal firm sends you the message: “We know who you are, we know where you live, stop saying bad things about us.”
So the posts came down.
If being named publicly is enough to stop an anonymous troll from spewing whatever it is that anonymous trolls spew, being exposed by a well-known consumer advocate like CBC’s Go Public can also have a cease-and-desist effect.
I’m not interested if Parson’s complaints as reported by Go Public would stand up in court as defence against a libel suit. I’m interested in what’s become of our notion of free speech in the age of the Internet.
Our concepts of free speech and fair comment grew up in a public marketplace.
If your opinions can be repeated face-to-face in a public square (assuming you have the courage to say them in the public square), they can be weighed by the legal system that also grew up in the public square.
People claim the Internet is the ultimate public square. But really, it isn’t.
Not when people of insufficient courage or plain bad intentions can anonymously post online judgments against people or organizations in the real world.
Would you call this an erosion of free speech? I would.
But the online world does not worry about such concepts. The Internet simply adapts.
Imagine being the operator of a hotel and a malicious review of your establishment is posted online, for all the world to see on a giant consumer review site like TripAdvisor.
What do you do? You contact an online reputation and reassurance service, like Kwikchex.
So instead of publicly determining if the hotel’s restaurant really did serve bad mussels, or if there really are bedbugs crawling the room, you pit one online giant against another, using more legal resources than anyone could possibly afford on their own.
So, as Kwikchex claims, thousands of negative online reviews are taken down and large entities like TripAdvisor get challenged in court.
Or an individual consumer like Olivia Parsons contacts an online advocate.
How much of this even has brushing contact with free speech? In my view, not much.
If you think your landlord has done you wrong, there are agencies set up to help determine the truth of the matter. If you don’t think a hotel gave good service for the money, sign your name to the complaint.
If you think I — or anyone else — may be full of baloney, don’t hide behind a baloney moniker to say so.
Our ideas about free speech and fair comment are not fully transferable to the Internet. Not yet, anyway. Until they are, the Internet grows its own adaptations.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.