TOC The comedy of the freedom of speech Your Turn

December 18, 2008

Last week we wrote at some serious length on how freedom of speech has been perverted into a privacy prevention tool. While we hope the courts will rise to the challenge and avoid what would amount to a tragedy, we wish to end the year on a lighter note. T'is the time to be jolly after all.

It so happens that, as versatile as Aesop's famed tongues, freedom of speech is also a source of endless comedy. How else qualify the story reported by Timothy Williams and Abeer Mohammed of the "shoe-hurling journalist" in Baghdad (*)? Muntader al-Zaidi's lawyer did not waste time to claim "[his client] did not commit a crime. [...] He only freely expressed himself."

The target of Mr al-Zaidi's down to earth arguments, US President Bush, did not hesitate to make light of the outburst. Indeed the whole episode represents a crowning achievement for his presidency. Who now could deny democracy is really taking root in Irak? On a more personal basis, notice how President Bush deftly ducked attacks from both the right and the left, thereby asserting a centrist legacy. May he use his influence to insure his debater safely spends Christmas with his family and avoids being booted out of his job.

Needless to say I dare the US President elect to push for disarmament and win United Nation members' unanimous resolution to hold all future diplomatic meetings in soft slippers. Such a change one can believe in would truly relegate Khrushchev's antics (1) to the dustbin of history.

Leaving Mr. K behind, let us take an initial step to return to privacy, our preferred topic. According to Jessica Guynn (**), "Facebook Inc.'s automated system rejected [V Addeman's] registration". The hero of this story was not born that way but did legally adopt a one letter first name in a further frivolous expression of freedom of speech. Why be so timorous? Although we cannot verify it, Malcoml X's name may have been legal too (2). So why not call oneself V A, or E T ? As it becomes hazardous to guess the sex of such a person, I suggest M. as a new, unbiased honorific.

In aNy CaSe, M. V Addeman was asked by Facebook "to supply a valid government-issued ID" but refused along the ground it was not required of other users, with less concise first names. This has the merit to highlight two eprivacy issues at once.

Forced by diseconomies of scale to manage applications by computer, Facebook relies on rules and blacklists to weed out users who may not be completely truthful about themselves. There is nothing wrong in principle with such an approach. Unfortunately Facebook never put in place the user-friendly process we found necessary to redress the errors of any well intentioned discriminatory program or service the protests against any recommendation mechanism. "It's an inconvenience for a few" is precisely what Herod thought when ordering the massacre of the Innocents.

Even more interesting is how ambiguous Facebook really is about weeding out impersonators and other sundry liars and joksters. The idea that one can take Facebook user declarations at face value is simply ludicrous. Were Facebook to check a valid government-issued ID from all its users, it would be slightly better. Ultimately serious recommendations involve a third party who truly knows the person being recommended and is trusted by the person who is sollicited. Ironically Facebook is well architectured to support this "rule of Three" through its users' friend list.

Why worry about identity? Peter Smith and Richard Waters tell us Australian courts now authorize lawyers "to use Facebook to serve legal documents" (***). Apparently, the targeted user's personal data was enough to persuade a judge the user was who the user claimed to be.

If the shoe fits, should it be enough to prosecute the wearer?

M. I D (formally known as Mr. Philippe Coueignoux)

  • (*) ..... Shoe-Hurling Journalist to Appear in Baghdad Court, by Timothy Williams and Abeer Mohammed (New York Times) - December 17, 2008
  • (**) ... One man's fight for Facebook recognition, by Jessica Guynn (Boston Globe) - December 14, 2008
  • (***) . Australian court allows lawyer to serve documents via Facebook, by Peter Smith and Richard Waters (Financial Times) - December 17, 2008
  • (1) see Nikita Khrushchev in the Wikipedia
  • (2) see Malcolm X in the Wikipedia
December 2008
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