Cyber Bullying And Online Speech: Why Regulation Is A Bad Idea

Here’s the not-so-latest news:  Senator Nancy Binay is planning to file a bill against cyber bullying and online violence. We’re not sure if this is in anyway connected to Senators Tito Sotto and Juan Ponce Enrile’s previous assertion that they want to propose a blogging bill, but it did have the unintended side effect of instigating discussions on the propriety of regulating online speech once again.

First, on the concept that senators can be victims of cyber bullying: unless it involves the actual threat of physical harm, any senator claiming the role of cyber victim is full of BS. Here’s what all politicians need to remember:  they are public figures. Fair and unfair criticism is par for the course. They are more than capable of defending themselves. Any criticism thrown at them, both deserved and undeserved, should be taken into consideration, weighed and judged on its own merits, and adopted or thrown away as appropriate. Any piece of legislation limiting this exchange is a bad thing.

On the issue of general regulation, the problem, we think, is that most senators appear to have no idea how social media works. It is the online manifestation of a pueblo, except instead of actual people hanging around the town plaza engaging in gossip, they now do it at home, in front of their computers. And instead of standing on an actual, literal soapbox and making speeches, you post a Facebook status update. Or write a blog.

Social media democratized publishing and broadcasting and quite literally gave everyone the capacity to disseminate whatever he or she wants. (Want to post a picture of your breakfast? Go ahead. Need to weigh in on the issues of the day? Knock yourself out.) What used to only be accessible to the wealthy and powerful can now be accessed by anyone. That is not an exaggeration. By anyone. It is the most democratic platform there is.

That is groundbreaking and breathtaking. Social media is the physical manifestation of the abstract concept of the marketplace of ideas. Sure, it tends to feel like the wild, wild West out here with everyone shooting off at the mouth, but that’s generally a good thing. (And no one gets to die.) If the expression offered is a bad idea, or is useless, or is culturally inappropriate, it will run its course, and sooner or later die a natural death. The marketplace of ideas, or rather, the people comprising the marketplace of ideas, will make sure of it.

This is why we think that any bill attempting to regulate freedom of online speech is generally a bad idea. Regulation would only serve to limit the democratizing power of social media, and hand the reins of idea propagation, once again, to the wealthy and powerful. Freedom of speech is not only an important foundation of a democracy; it is the linchpin around which all the other freedoms we enjoy revolve around. If regular people, typing an opinion on a blog, can be punished for not toeing the government line, then we may as well close shop and stop calling this system democratic and egalitarian. Because in the same way a person can allege anything in a blog, any other person can refute the same allegations in the same manner. The blog, or Facebook, or any social media platform, is not some secret space only available to an exclusive few. It is merely the medium upon which we now conduct discussions. Any attempt to regulate it would necessarily encroach on our capacities to exchange ideas and information. Take out the technology aspect, and what you are left with is a classic case of impingement on freedom of expression.