Freedom of speech. Who controls what you say in online learning environments?

I was somewhat taken by surprise this morning by an article on the radio about the discussion of regulation around blogs. There is an active debate in the media about regulation at the moment, with both the printed press and television under some scrutiny. Blogs, so far, don’t even have a code of practice.

Media are collapsing from their separate states into a homogenised whole: newspapers, tv shows, websites, books, all used to be separate, but all now inhabit a far more joined up space, where books have websites and Twitter feeds and blogs have videos and books. Despite my initial reaction (‘how dare they suggest i should adhere to a code of practice, Englishman, castle, rant etc’), it does seem sensible that we should at least be exploring the issues at hand.

When i’m lecturing, one of the themes that i come back to time and again is around how the world has changed, how the old notions of ‘formal’, work spaces and ‘informal’ social spaces have changed. In fact, they’ve gone out of the window. Everything now exists in a grey social space, where the legislative questions, ethical and moral questions and even the social questions are relatively unexplored. Issues of identity, trust and truth are all open to different interpretations in the online realm.

It makes sense that, within this fast paced change, we should be exploring if we need frameworks, and how robust those frameworks should be. Indeed, the question is probably less ‘do we need frameworks’ but more ‘how on earth can we hope to have a framework that can adapt to the pace of change’. This isn’t a question of statutory regulation, but rather a voluntary code of practice that does, at least start, to capture or explore issues around new media. I feel that there may be space for a voluntary code where people can choose to adhere or not, but that if you do adhere to it, there is a recognised kitemark or indication around this. The advantages in a commercial world of adhering to standards that govern integrity and truth are obvious.

Clearly there are questions around freedom of speech, so dear to Americans, but not, for us, enshrined in law. However, the point is moot, because even within media that are regulated, there is still freedom of expression. Regulation will not remove the functionality of instant publication and expression of views, but may enable greater transparency of how ‘facts’ are sourced and where ownership of opinions lie.

Or maybe not. Maybe the whole point of blogging is that it’s a socially transparent tool, that anyone can say anything, that we can all engage in debate, which you can’t do with the TV. Maybe there is no need for regulation, because we can all build our own stage to talk back. Maybe, but in real terms i think that a knowledge based society, with a social conscience, has responsibility to look after the needs of the minority. I don’t believe that i have the right to express opinions that alienate a minority or incite hatred without having some parallel level of accountability and ownership.

It’s a tricky question, but it feels like the right time for the debate. If we don’t stand up and discuss these issues, the world will change around our ears. Freedom of expression is essential, but in a responsible environment, where we protect the vulnerable. That’s the way of a mature society.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Formal Spaces, Informal Spaces and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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