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Social Media, Online Privacy and Free Speech Anonymity: a guest post by Fiona Causer

Freedom of speech is one of the most treasured rights of citizens of democratic nations around the world. Yet debate about freedom of speech continues in the twenty-first century as technology provides new methods of communication.  For with these new communication channels come new challenges to professionals in the position of protecting these free speech rights.  This makes the demand for savvier legal practitioners even greater than before.  In order to have a chance to defend future victims of violated online trust, many paralegal online education programs are tasked with providing technologically-aware graduates ready to face these potential violations to online privacy and free speech.

More than ten million Australians use Facebook and millions of others use other social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube to share information with friends and families and, sometimes, to express political opinions. While no one suggests that the explosion of social media use should be curtailed, many people are concerned over the forum social networking sites provide for anonymous comments, which can often contain vitriol that the posters would not necessarily express if they were face-to-face with someone with an opposing view.

Many Facebook users assume their posts are viewable only by their friends, but anything that has been posted online can be found and viewed by computer-savvy hackers, sometimes with dramatic consequences. Numerous people have been fired after making derogatory comments on Facebook or Twitter about their employers.

The consequences of some social media posts are far greater than an individual’s firing when the comments are of a political nature. For example, a private site on Facebook used by more than 1000 current and former members of the Australian military was discovered to have numerous posts that were offensive to women, Muslims and immigrants. Hundreds of the posts included expletives and hateful language. The discovery of the site, which has now been shut down, created a scandal in the Australian army and will likely result in the firing of the posters.
In another instance, Tony Mitchell, an Australian teaching English in Bahrain, was fired from his position and deported for writing about the political unrest in the country on his Facebook account. According to an article on NextWeb.com, Mitchell found out that his Facebook page was being monitored by people he had added as friends to his page who then forwarded the information to his university’s human resources department.

Situations such as Mitchell’s may encourage some social media users to create fake identities to protect themselves yet be open about their opinions. However, the ability to hide an identity on social media could lead to abuses if users use their anonymity to write inflammatory posts. If anonymous or false identities become too prevalent, it may be possible that restrictions could be put in place on social media networks to prevent this type of behaviour.

In order to take full advantage of the benefits of social media without compromising a person’s employment or safety, users of social media are advised to be careful about what they post. Embarrassing photos, rude comments about other people, explosive political rants and complaints about work can all cause personal problems such as loss of employment or the loss of important relationships. A good rule of thumb to avoid problems with social media is to assume that every item posted may be read by an employer and a close relative. Anything that would offend either of those people may be better left off a social media site. While freedom of speech is a right that every Australian treasures, with freedom comes responsibility.

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