Does ‘www’ stand for World Wild West? Recent events suggest it might. My own experience is that the internet is not as free as we think.
Twitter gained a fabulous amount of publicity because someone used it to post alleged details of some superinjunctions and then the coverage went into the stratosphere when a no longer unnamed footballer took legal action to get them to reveal who the tweeter was. So far Twitter appear to have ignored this request, perhaps because they are a US company and over there the law gives social networks a considerable level of immunity regarding what people post. Given the boost in numbers of Twitter visits, they must have made almost as much money out of this saga as Ryan Giggs’ solicitors.
So far so wild, but in fact Twitter do have a number of rules for Tweeters. Accordingly, while you may find British court injunctions broken, you won’t find out how to make a bomb. Facebook users are subject to many more conditions of use- a list longer than the US constitution. The chaps at the world’s number one social network seem to be more worried about causing offence than the late Mary Whitehouse. I suspect that this is because their business model requires as many people as possible to use the site and they don’t want anyone to be put off by something they find rude. And because they want to make sure that no female nipples appear in all those photo albums of wild student parties, they even remove photos of women breast feeding (any time not just at wild parties).
Since it’s impossible to have an automated program that will distinguish between male and female nipples, it seems Facebook have a team of real human beings assessing reported offences (not only nudity). This makes their decision to ban breastfeeding even more contemptible but also shows that while we internet users may think it’s a free-for-all, we are actually serfs, subject to the whims and prejudices of the website rulers.
Of course it’s our choice about whether or not to use a social network. I happily use both Facebook and Twitter to promote Your Life Your Style but then I don’t expect my postings about new products and summer sales to upset the website Stasi. For me, a worse problem is the automated censorship of emails. This is where a piece of software blocks you because it thinks it has spotted too much flesh in your photos or the use of certain rude words. I recently emailed a customer about some Dartington Crystal products. I couldn’t understand why my email was rejected on the grounds of offensive language. It’s not as if I make a habit of swearing at my customers.
Only when I looked at the detailed explanation did I find that the filter had taken offence at my reference to the cocktail glasses known as ‘High Balls’. Now I could have understood if it had put a stop on the ‘F’ word but an everyday word for spheres? What are we supposed to juggle with? How are they going to play snooker at The Crucible? We’d also never hear from the Shadow Chancellor again (OK, it may not be all bad).
After that load of spherical objects, I’d better get back to my stock ordering. Thankfully Your Life Your Style doesn’t need any High Balls at the moment, just some crystal jugs and faux fur muffs. No problem there then.
A version of this article appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website