Sunday, 17 January 2016

When Speech Is Used To Censor Speech, How Free Is Speech?

Wendy Cockcroft gagged
Today I reported myself to Greater Manchester Police. Apparently I'm a nefarious criminal engaged in theft, extortion, and a range of serious offences so as soon as I learned that yet another complaint had been made against me I deemed it best to let them know so they could get me off the streets and out of harm's way.

Will the authorities do anything?

Honestly, I doubt it. I've reported the matter to the on the link provided above but they will probably conclude that this is a civil matter because nobody has reported the allegations to them as the aggrieved party. I've reported myself in an effort to get them to at least glance at it from the point of view of investigating an alleged crime committed by me. Since they're unlikely to get a response from any attempt to reach out to the complainant I'm most likely to receive an official "Shut up and go away, this is a civil matter. Consult a solicitor" response to provide to my employer as evidence that the allegations are all lies. This can then be passed on to anyone who asks questions about it and I will be sure to post it on all the websites where the defamation is taking place. "The police say there's nothing to report" is the best defence to this nonsense.

I'd be very surprised to hear that Antipodean Plod showing up at a certain individual's door to feel his or her collar on charges of cyber-stalking and harassment (though a girl can dream!) mostly because this appears to be a drive-by attack with five shots fired. It doesn't qualify as stalking or harassment. It's libel.

What about my employers?

We all know what this is about, of course: shutting me up. I mean, think about it; this "Diaz" person has tweeted allegations made against me as a representative of the company I work for so it's possible that I might be told to stop blogging "till it all blows over."

The trouble is, it won't. You see, the most the consumer complaints websites will do about this is permit me to post a rebuttal and perhaps charge me for arbitration, which is where they make their money. That said, Pissed Consumer* now follows me on Twitter so I expect to be hearing from them soon. I have reported this to them, after all. They may elect to remove the accusation as being in breach of their TOS. might possibly do the same, leaving Yelp and Ripoff Report. I'm not sure about Yelp but Ripoff Report demand to be paid to remove false accusations and I'm not going to do that.

My employer is a large multinational corporation with a worldwide presence. They may be able to exert some leverage in terms of tracking down and identifying my accuser and suing him or her for libel and defamation of the business. Should that happen — and if it's one of the two people I'm thinking of — a certain appeal in a defamation case Down Under might be adjudicated in Google's favour, a fact I've pointed out to Google on Twitter.

What about my reputation?

Accusations being leveled at me by "Manuel Diaz" on multiple platforms
Click to enlarge

Reputations are built via interactions with other people and given the reactions I've had from everyone I've shared this with so far there doesn't seem to be any damage. I've been getting in there quickly with the counter-claims and the challenges to prove it and report me to the authorities and so far there has been no response from the other side. Even if the accusations remain online and even if they float to the top of the search results (they're in the search results, pages two to five) my rebuttals will be right there beneath them, along with any supporting evidence I can add.

There is absolutely no point at all in trying to get the links to the allegations removed from the Google search results because:

  • Right To Be Forgotten or not, it'd only apply to UK search results
  • People clicking on or sharing the links would put them back in the search results
  • Other search engines exist
  • The content would remain where it is and would still be linkable and therefore searchable
  • I'd be playing whack-a-mole for the rest of my life. It's not worth it

and I will be sure to tell my employers this if it comes up at work. If you want to get the information off the search engines forever you have got to get the content taken down at source. Oh, and search engines cache content so even if each of the consumer websites does take the bogus reports down it'll be a while before they're gone from the internet. I accept that. The best I can do, then, to maintain my reputation, is to answer the accusations with a demand for evidence, then get back on with my life. I'm actually better off getting this out and aired in the open than trying to hide it.

So how free is my speech?

Graphic: Popehat, censorship cedes all authority to the offended

Take a good long look at the graphic I made for law blogger Ken White, who specialises in freedom of speech. I appreciate the fact that we shouldn't be obliged to walk on eggshells for fear of offending the sensibilities of the easily offended but I also believe we ought to at least try to get along with each other. That said, I can be a little snarky and mean at times but it doesn't justify lying about me online and trying to get me sacked from my job.

The limits of freedom

Freedom of speech is measured in terms of how much you are willing to fight for what you want to say and how much support you can gain for saying it.

I've been silenced before when my own speech was drowned out by trolls who intimidated and manipulated people I was friendly with into joining in. I ceded the field, deeming it not worth the effort to interact with people who were willing to tolerate such activities until it became their problem. The trouble was, there was a culture of complacence there so nothing was going to change even when some of the more popular people were also driven off.

In this case the idea is to make me afraid to post anything a certain individual might find offensive in case he or she goes nuts complaining about me on consumer complaints websites where the content isn't verified. If I cede the field this time I might as well stop blogging here, sod off for a while, then pop up with an alter ego somewhere else but I don't want to do that. I shouldn't be obliged to hide.

I also blog for 38 Degrees. What if someone decides my beliefs are too left wing** for their liking and decide to make up lies about me to embarrass the company I work for, knowing that I backed off over this? So far I've not had some weirdo going nuts about my activism but it might happen. I'm very open about it. To be honest I'm not sure what they'll do. I'm hoping they will just ignore it as some whiny prat on the internet trying to cause trouble for me and failing miserably. My Twitter friends are doing just that.

The limit of my freedom, then, is whether or not I'm willing to risk my job (and reputation!) for the right to post my opinions online as myself. And it's a very real threat if my employers believe I'm responsible for provoking my accuser into posting these allegations against me. Thank God I don't do web design for money any more. I might have ended up losing my livelihood over this.

*"Pissed" means "angry" in America. I've used its full name because that's what it's called.
**I'm actually conservative.

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