July 6th, 2010
11:04 AM ET
11 years ago

How is social media impacting free speech rights?

Aspen, Colorado (CNN) - The future of free speech will be chosen by lawyers and businessmen at companies such as Google, Comcast and Facebook, not by politicians in Washington or the judicial system.

That is George Washington University Law School Professor Jeffrey Rosen's "big idea" he delivered at the Aspen Ideas Festival Monday night to an overflowing crowd of the top leaders in business, politics, technology, and law - including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Rosen named Nicole Wang, Google's deputy general council, as a company executive who has more say over free speech than most. Wang has the authority to keep or remove YouTube videos. When governments around the world want a video removed, she is woken up to make the decision.

In Washington, political institutions constantly jockey over who has the right to control content on line. The Federal Communications Commission has ruled against Comcast, America's largest internet provider, for blocking the popular file sharing network BitTorrent. This year, a federal appeals court ruled the FCC had no legal authority to rule against Comcast. The FCC has tried to reintroduce the policy and Rosen says it will be a fight between regulators and Congress to will settle this issue.

"The future of free speech will not be determined by a Supreme Court justice interpreting the first amendment, because the first amendment only binds government," Rosen said. "It does not bind Google, Comcast and Facebook."

Directing his message to the "titans of digital communication" in the room, Rosen warned, "the future of the first amendment will ultimately be decided by the decisions you make while doing business."

Filed under: Politics • Social Media
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Tall Ed

    Sad but true. The good old days of the Net being open, and allowing freedom of speech are coming to an end.

    July 6, 2010 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  2. Pat

    While the streaming info is a great source of pleasure for everyone, it can also be a curse. The social networking sites are worse than the Wild West because their users can't fight back.

    Take Twitter, for instance, whose TOS I doubt anyone reads, states that Twitter owns ALL of the content on the site and that they may sell or redistribute it without notice or compensation to the user. If you look at the trademark cases against them, you will see that they have no respect for US TM laws.

    Free speech is in the hands of those with the most money. They own and manage "free speech". Nothing is really free. Every iota of info that you enter on these sites is SOLD!

    July 6, 2010 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  3. Harrison

    This is a scary road for free speech on the internet. I agree that many terrible threatening things have come to the internet. Yet the worry of who defines what is offensive material is what worries. If some have it their way the many more liberal topics on the internet will be restricted. If another group has it's way more conservative words will be restricted. Many people live in states where they are the minority, if they cut the communication between one group to another. It will be sad day. Hopefully things will be treated fairly and everyone can still speak their mind.

    July 6, 2010 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  4. Mesa Mick

    The "Thought Control Patrol" of the rabid, right wing elements of "conservative" America like the "Taliban"-evangelicals and anti-womens choicers love the fact that they can now bombard these social networks with extortion, coersion and other similiar threats of "economic boycotts" to supress free speech whenever they want to.

    And you know what, these sites are gonna fold like cheap lawn chairs to these social and cultural regressionists becasue they too value the almighty corporate dollar more than free speech, just like the five right-wing vigilantes on the SCOTUS...

    July 6, 2010 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  5. Phil Muse

    A lot of the debate concerning restrictions on free speech centers on political correctness, or "PC." As a liberal I'm opposed to PC because too many people look on it as the sole definition of Liberalism. If that's true, it's a poor definition. It just comes down to saying "Let's not utter anything disrespectful about any minority whatsoever, because they might sue us." Not "dissing" other people is not the same as having a real respect for their basic humanity.

    July 6, 2010 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  6. independent

    If they are going to be held liable for what is on their websites, they are going to have a say. If it is going to be free speech, then they cannot be held liable.

    July 6, 2010 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  7. stormerF2

    I for sure would trust Private Business rather than a bunch of self serving Politicans,to dictate what free speech is.Just look at the Lame stream Media's attempt to stiffle and distort the truth about Obama's past accomplishments and associations with Radicals.

    July 6, 2010 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  8. Larry

    The right to free speech in this country is of course not absolute; you can't yell "Fire!" in a movie theater and you can't threaten our highest political officials. Why would anyone expect that companies that are providing a service NOT be allowed to have at least some say in what is carried on their own pipes? Newspapers have the ability to print or not print what they want, as do television stations...the social networking example is just more personal than these other examples.

    The good news is that in a democracy we have a reasonably powerful influence, and that comes from voting with our dollars and our actions. If Google or whoever else is too controlling and it becomes an issue, someone else will step in. It's always been that way.

    Bottom line is that free speech is just as "free" as it's ever been, probably more so. Because we now can see, for example, that a) our comments aren't posted on Ticker, or b) our Youtube video gets removed for content violations, etc. it's more personal. But it's never been more free than it is now. You want free speech? Rely on your own lungs, your own publication, etc.

    July 6, 2010 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  9. Michael Bindner, Alexandria VA

    The right to free speech, while inalienable, is only operational where protected and recognized. Firms that operate outside countries where it is gauranteed need to deal or deny service – I recommend the latter unless they are willing to help the cause of freedom clandestinely by not doing what governments want them to do very effectively. Indeed, they need to make sure that any protections insisted on by tyrannical states leak like a sieve.

    Freedom of the press applies only if you own one.

    July 6, 2010 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  10. AB

    Cult idiot!

    Now he arguing – from a Republican point-of-view – that a large nuclear arsenal is necessary to twart state-sponsored terrorism?

    I'm sorry – but that is just arguing for the sake of argument. Complete and utter idiocy for headlines! What, Romney, can't say anything with substance?

    July 6, 2010 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  11. Ferret out the BS

    While I respect what the professor is saying, the ultimate decisions of free speech ovet the net will remain with the Supreme Court, as long as individuals and lawyers continue to sue over issues of law. Certainly companies appear to own content that is presented over their site and a conservative court may be finding in favor of corporate intervention and censoring at this time. But that does not preclude future rulings that may reverse. Examples are occuring with this court right now specifically with campagne law as well the law concerning the initial rulings on Roe V. Wade are in a constant state of review and change. So don't count anything out.

    July 6, 2010 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  12. Kevin in Ohio

    Another academic looking to deflect us from the REAL threat to Free Speech.... progressivism. If you doubt this, just look in the mirror liberals...how many times have you demanded the Tea Party be silenced?

    July 6, 2010 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |