Zeynep Tufekci QOTD: On Free Speech, Power, and the Internet

Zeynep Tufekci is a sociologist who studies the internet, among other things. This week, she published a fantastic blog post about the interactions of free speech, power, and new media. The post focuses on two very divergent examples: the Reddit/Gawker controversy over the release of the identity of a Reddit editor who pioneered threads dedicated to non-consensual “soft porn” photos of underaged girls, and the controversy over the anti-Muslim Youtube video linked to widespread protests. In it, Tufekci ties together arguments about the internet’s capacity for norm-shifting, the importance of recognizing conflicts between rights rather than asserting one right as absolute, the way that assertions of absolute rights often reinforce disparities of power, and the way that assertions of the so-called “digital divide” similarly work to deflect criticisms of the exercise of power. I won’t summarize the post too much, because it’s brilliant and you all should read it. Instead, I’m just going to excerpt a few choice quotes:

Rather, let’s look at this as a good example for why “free speech” as an absolute value for any community that is not balanced by any other concern is at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.

Because the way power enters into this debate isn’t whether or not there will be creeps who wade through Flickr to find photos of children on the beach –surely there will be with or without Reddit. Indeed, a common answer to issues like this is “well, creeps we shall always have amongst us.” Indeed, that is true. However, the existence of child predators with or without Reddit is in fact a strong argument for shunning them from major sites, including Reddit. Allowing them to be part of the community is not an assertion of free speech, rather it is assertion by Reddit and Condé Nast of the right of adult men to sexualize children & violate women’s privacy through non-consensual exposure. It’s simple as that.

This stance of “it’s just the Internet” is basically relegating the children preyed upon into the “virtual” realm. They just aren’t real enough to count while Reddit moderators are so hyperreal that exposing their mere name is a grave violation. In fact, digital dualism often surfaces as this kind of “power assertions” when gatekeepers and already-powerful who have access to broad publics trivialize self-expression on the Internet (“it’s just cat videos”), never miss a chance to put down Twitter (“it’s about what you had for lunch”), or consider social interaction on Facebook to be unreal compared to “real life” interaction.

Again, I’m not talking about banning everything offensive. Not at all. I’m calling on major sites on the Internet to assert that in this community, we affirm the right of people to exist in an environment that is not hostile to vulnerable populations over the right of people who claim that their right to prey upon children trumps all other rights.

Go read the whole thing, and follow the blog if you haven’t already!

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