No, it doesn’t.
Free speech is an interesting concept in general; it’s even more so when you take it to the internet. There are rules and even laws.
But it’s a very complex issue.
And it all begins with realizing that there’s no such entity as “The Internet.”
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My big fat caveat
I have to start by saying this: I am not a lawyer, not even close. That means that this is in no way a substitute for actual legal advice from an attorney or other source much better versed in all the nuances of free speech. If you need real, honest legal advice, then get a real, honest attorney1.
My discussion here is intended for those who are interested in the concepts (or may simply be unfamiliar with the generalities). It represents only my understanding of, and opinions on, the assortment of issues. I could be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I could be. 🙂
The “internet” is simply a term that’s used to describe this vast global network of interconnected computers.
The internet itself has no laws or rules. Heck, even the protocols, the formats, and the various ways that devices interconnect aren’t governed by enforceable laws. They could more appropriately be termed “gentlemen’s agreements.” Adhere to this specific protocol and you’ll be able to do X on the internet. Change that protocol – which you are able to do – and X won’t work.
Just look at all of the cross-browser capability standards to display a web page and you’ll get an idea of those agreements at work.
But there are laws
There are laws that govern aspects of how we communicate with each other, including how we do so over the internet. The problem is that those laws vary by the hundreds of countries in which internet users live.
…it’s a bucket-load of inconsistent, incomplete, and often contradictory laws that may or may not apply to any given situation you might encounter.
In short, there’s a bucket-load of laws that apply to what happens on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s a bucket-load of inconsistent, incomplete, and often contradictory laws that may or may not apply to any given situation you might encounter.
To the issue at hand, not all countries actually have free speech provisions.
Just because you live in a country that affords free speech as a right, it doesn’t mean that the service that you’re using in that country has the same guarantees. Depending on the location of the company, the individual who owns the site, or the hosting company that provides the server space and network connection, there may simply be no such thing as any kind of free-speech guarantee. Period.
Free speech might not be what you think
Let’s say I run a website. 🙂
You take issue with something that I post on my website and you say so using the commenting ability of that website.
I am not required to publish your comment. Furthermore, if I do happen to publish it, I am not required to keep your comment published. This has nothing to do with your free speech rights. If anything, I expect it has more to do with my rights as the website owner.
But you can set up your own website (where it’s legal) where you take issue with me. I can do nothing about that.
That’s what free speech really is, at least to me: the ability to set up your own pulpit and say what you want. It does not mean that you have some kind of right to use someone else’s venue for your message.
And just because you can’t reach my audience to make your point from your site, it doesn’t make a difference. Freedom of speech does not guarantee an audience. If you get one, fantastic. I have no rights to reach them via your venue either.
TOS, AUP, and common sense
There’s more to this than the whim of the site’s owner. Many will have thought through what their site is about and what they want it to look like. They may very well have set up some rules or guidelines ahead of time.
You’ll often find that there are “Terms of Service” (TOS) for most websites that allow you to post information. Be it writing your own blog on a blog hosting service, making posts in a forum, or leaving comments on an article, you’ll either explicitly or implicitly agree to abide by those terms.
Don’t like the terms? Don’t post there. Go somewhere else. Violate the terms? Expect to see your comments, posts, or blog disappear.
Remember, it’s not your site. If you want to play there at all, you must play by their rules.
Similarly, if you make use of a hosting service or something similar to set up your own website, service, or blog, you’ll likely be faced with an “Acceptable Use Policy” or AUP. As the name implies, when you use someone else’s services like that – even if you’re paying for the privilege – you’re required to abide by rules that they consider to be an acceptable use of their services.2
And regardless of where you post or host and what their rules are, there remain things that are simply wrong to say or do – at least morally and perhaps legally. The classic example is that it’s not within free speech rights to randomly yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater3. When free speech guarantees are available at all, they don’t trump the safety of others.
Making your point
“So if website owners can just randomly delete my comments or posts, how am I supposed to make my point to the people that are there and need to see it?”
You may not be able to. Whether you’re on the web or using another form of media, there’s nothing about human discourse that guarantees that you can make your point to the people who you think need to hear it. There’s certainly no legal recourse that I’m aware.
Except… (and this is where you really need to talk to a lawyer)…
Defamation, slander, and libel are all assorted terms that have very specific legal implications. I won’t try to delve into that. But depending on where you are and your specific situation, information on the internet that intentionally lies about you or maliciously harms you may be one thing on which you can act. Like I said, get an attorney.
It even happens to me
I’ve been banned from one discussion forum (that I know).4
And as unfair as it is, that site owner has every right to do so. In many ways, it really sucks because it’s preventing me from being able to communicate with the other users of that site.
But it simply must be this way.
Consider the alternative – that I’m somehow able to force that site owner to let me back in. If there were a mechanism to let people force their way onto sites that others own and control, that would have a pretty chilling effect on the internet as a whole. In fact, it’s likely that sites like Ask Leo! wouldn’t exist. Malicious entities would use that ability to their own ends.
As distasteful as it is, that website owner’s ability to pick and choose whom he allows on his site is also an important form of freedom of speech.
Even if he’s wrong.