Ethical Debates in Connected Culture 2019/Freedom of Information


The concept of the freedom of information has become heavily debated following the takeoff of social media in the late 2000's. Content that we publish online in the public domain has become scrutinised by what we can use from sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the rules around what can be published and the nature of the content we present.

The laws surrounding the use of information have become outdated thanks to the speed and ease that people can share information or media content like pictures and videos online, and now that they have become so difficult to govern given the large audience in a connected world, it’s clear that there are faults around how our information is handled online. Ways in which we see information being used and handled fall foul of the various laws in place, but given how easy it is to break them, it’s hard to see how the issues we discuss are going to be resolved.

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Our discussion will look at how free we are to use public information online for our own purposes, how we govern people who publish offensive content online, and the ways which the media have become intrusive with information deemed free to access online. We are also going to draw on various real life examples that relate to these issues and highlight the main debates that arose from the case studies referenced.

Peter Johan Lor (2007) consider the debate surrounding if we can have a knowledge society ever without the freedom to access information. He wrote:

“The question arises whether an information society and, more critically, a knowledge society can develop in the absence of freedom of access to information, freedom of expression and freedom to access the digital economy.”[1]

Now, as we approach 2020, the question can be asked differently, and ask if we can have a digital society that shares knowledge and information with an ever growing audience despite the tough questions surrounding the freedom to information posted online. The volume of information on social networking sites is forever expanding, and controlling it is only going to throw so many challenges in the way based on the issues we discuss below.

Main Discussion - Is information really free to access online?Edit


One of the major constrains of publishing information in a digital environment is that it becomes challenging to control the rights and ownership of any given information posted in a public domain. Social networking sites would be the biggest example of this, as it has become very easy to lift information from people's pages and then recycle it for another person's use or requirements.

It instantly becomes very difficult to govern who has illegally lifted content online because despite having such access to various types of information online, the number of people using said information for the wrong purposes is too big to police. There are over three billion people using social media actively [2](Investopedia, 2019), so regulating the matter of someone taking information they are not entitled to is far too loose for acts like copyright and freedom of information to be implemented correctly.

It is assumed that the person or organisation who has originally posted the content holds ownership to the information they have posted online, but most social media websites enable users to republish or share information with such ease and very quickly. That especially applies to user created content such as photos, audio files, and video files. Yet given how easily content like this is shared, it can very easily be made to look like it belongs to another user if someone was to take the information posted and use it maliciously.

The capacity for information to move quickly through various social channels bring the element of ownership into serious doubt as the information can pass through numerous outlets at a worrying pace. Charles Ess refers to this concept as "greased information" [3](Ess, 2014) and highlights the serious risk to privacy that comes attached with this matter. Given the speed at which information can travel, the ability for someone's information to be used multiple times by a separate person becomes a major risk, therefore when it comes to controlling the information you have published, it can be very hard to track where it has actually ended up.

Kardashian V MuñozEdit

One example of copyright issues causing a stir online is the fallout between Khloe Kardashian and photographer Manuel Muñoz. Khloe posted an image of herself and her sister Kourtney on her Instagram account. The incident was later taken to court in California by the photographer, and the photographer's agency sued the Khloe for using the photo without permission (Press Gazette, 2017).[4]

Kardashian, Khloe (LF)

This incident instantly throws up the question as to what is owned by who online, because by standard copyright law, the photo is rightfully under the ownership of Muñoz. However, given the freedom at which Kardashian had to share the photo on social media, and how she was able to access the picture and republish it at ease, it makes the copyright law very difficult to police with how large the audience is on social media.

If people are free to republish photographs online by retweeting or sharing images taken by photographers, the idea of taking photos without consent from online sources becomes increasing difficult to control, and given the high profile following the Kardashian’s have online, the number of people with the freedom to access the photo in question will be too difficult to prevent sharing the picture.

Lopez V Splash NewsEdit

Another example came when Jennifer Lopez used a photograph on her social media from Splash News and Picture Agency. The picture was taken in November 2017 when Lopez and her fiancé Alex Rodriguez were snapped holding hands and having breakfast in New York (USA Today, 2019).[5]

Splash sued for $150,000 in damages following the use of the picture on Lopez’s Instagram account, which currently has 102 million followers. Given that Lopez saw the picture was of herself and had been taken by paparazzi, she short sighted the copyright laws and used the picture for her own good, which given how often celebrities are snapped by press photographers, wasn’t a shock given how many have made the same mistake.

The defence of the press organisation revolved around the harm it would cause to further marketing of the images taken that day, and the case was settled in favour of Splash News. This, and the Kardashian case, highlight not only immediate adaptations to the copyright law to be made to include social networking usage, but it painted a worrying picture that showed how many celebrities could get caught in the same situation in future. Various forms of digital media are published online, and absentmindedly lifting content from other social media users and organisations is going to be a much more regular occurrence as the wealth of celebrity figures on social media continue to look for content that involves them.

Offensive Content Edit

What Defines Offensive Content?Edit

Being offensive to individuals, groups, societies, regions and countries in any forms or ways(such as images, comments and videos) are all offensive content.[6]

The extraordinary speaking opportunities are provided to a broadly-defined "speakers" by the Internet. Online users could express their opinions and make them available to worldwide audiences easier than before. (William, 2001)[7] Although the Internet has given people the freedom to express different ideas and opinions, it has also posed ethical challenges in the digital media era. Offensive language has become a big problem threatening the health of the online community and individual users.[8] For the online community, the spread of offensive language gradually destroys its reputation, dissuades users from participating, and even directly affects its development. For users, viewing offensive language can harm their mental health, especially for children and young adults. As Spinello points out, "the issue of free speech and content control in cyberspace has arguably become the most controversial moral issue of the emerging information age."

There are mainly the following difficulties in controlling and regulating the distribution of offensive content:

1. There are too many platforms for online speech, and the amount of speech is too large. With the help of network communication, network speech is widely connected to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SNSs and other platforms, connecting all corners of the world.

2. Offensive content on the Internet covers a wide range of topics, including sexism, racial discrimination, hate speech and pornographic information etc. Some information even exerts subliminal influence on users through disguise. The development of online platforms makes it difficult to distinguish the true from the false. Whether such information involves infringement requires someone with expertise to identify, and regulators sometimes cannot manage and restrain such a large group of Internet users.

3. It is challenging to obtain illegal evidence of offensive content, while the network is a virtual space, and it is difficult to obtain sufficient evidence because the evidence may be destroyed in a flash.

Elon Musk Twitter FalloutEdit

Elon Musk will face trial in December 2019

The chief executive of Tesla, Elon Musk, is set to go on trial in December 2019 after mocking British diver Vernon Unsworth by calling him a paedophile in a Twitter post on his personal account last July. He also dismissed the tech multibillionaire’s act for rescuing the football players as a "PR stunt" in an interview with CNN. Then the submarine built for a rescue mission was derided by Unsworth. Musk lashed out at Unsworth via his 22.5 million followers Twitter account just because of these comments (The Guardian, 2019).[9]

A federal court judge in Los Angeles set an Oct. 22 trial date, that rejected the Tesla chief executive's attempts to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by Unsworth. Musk claimed his insult was not protected by law, but the judge in charge of the case disagreed. Los Angeles district judge Stephen Wilson said the jury would decide whether Musk's allegations against the diver in 2018 constituted defamation. Wilson ruled that the case must be heard in December.

The comments came as a shock to many on social media given the heroic efforts Unsworth and his team went to to save the football team from the cave after they became trapped when heavy rainfall flooded the entrance to the cave and trapped the youngsters. However, given the way social networking sites like Twitter allow you to share whatever messages you like, Musk was in far too easy a position to defame Unsworth. That's where we look to organisations like Twitter to police this behaviour, and control comments like the one made by Musk, but given the size of the population using Twitter, that becomes near mission impossible to control comments from every single user online, and the freedom to post whatever information you choose, falls quickly out of Twitter's hands.

Katie Hopkins "Final Solution" BacklashEdit

Another example of information online causing harm and offence came in 2017 when British radio host Katie Hopkins caused upset on Twitter in the wake of the Manchester bombings (The Guardian, 2017).[10] 22 people were killed when a terrorist detonated a bomb following an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester arena. Hopkins, who at the time hosted a show on LBC Radio channel, tweeted:

"22 dead – number rising. Schofield. Don’t you even dare. Do not be a part of the problem. We need a final solution Machester [sic].”

Katie Hopkins

She later cited the tweet to be a typo after sparking outrage by referring to the final solution, a term used by Nazis during the mass killings of millions of Jewish citizens during the second World War. LBC Radio immediately sacked Hopkins, and a complaint was made to Metropolitan Police over the incident.

Much like the Elon Musk example, Hopkins was free to post the tweet online in the wake of the attack in Manchester, and will have considered the tweet to be a matter of free speech or opinion. Yet given the huge backlash that followed the tweet, this again is where the problems lie around the debate of what can and can't be said online. The raw emotions felt by people distressed by the events in Manchester will have been hit by Hopkins' remarks, and her comments will have caused greater upset given how soon her comment was made online.

The majority of the population in the UK who used social media that night to stay connected to events in Manchester and keep up to date with everything in the aftermath of the attack will have been able to see the comment, and this shows the speed at which a large audience can be harmed by an offensive comment by a high profile figure online during a sensitive time. Again the argument around policing Twitter and other social networking sites comes into play, but this time, the big argument is whether social media platforms should do more to repeat reoffending by people who have caused harm online.

Hopkins still has her social media account to this day despite her offensive tweet being pushed as a complaint to the police. Do we have to bring in stricter laws against people who have used the freedom of speech and free will to publish information of their choosing that has caused harm, or can people get away with posting offensive content into a public domain? Regardless of the incident, Hopkins still has 1.1 million followers on Twitter, and that audience are easily susceptible to her often offensive and harmful tweets, so social media platforms need to consider taking stronger actions against people who have posted harmful content online.

Media IntrusionEdit

What Is Media Intrusion?Edit

We live in a time of great technological advancements and ubiquitous and pervasive media. The boundaries between reality and virtuality have become blurred and the media can intrude on people's lives inadvertently. Media is intrusive and this character can be felt in various fields such as politics, private lives and the government. In politics area,the power of the media has become irresistible and the result has been a media takeover (and distortion) of the democratic process.[11] There is also the phenomenon of media invasion in people's lives; for example, the media will record the portraits of the individuals in the images without the permission of the individuals when interviewing an event. When the press invades people's lives, you don't know how your information will be used.[12]

Examples Of Media IntrusionEdit

Example 1:
Natural disasters, social issues and celebrities’ tidbits will easily attract the attention of the media. Media reports sometimes will influence people's lives in order to obtain first-hand information and will alter our behaviour when looking to uncover more details on certain stories.[13]

Take one media intrusion issue in China for example: In 2015, Yao Beina, a well-known Chinese female singer, died of cancer. On the evening of January 16, a journalist from Shenzhen Evening News disguised as a doctor's assistant entered the morgue to take photos of Yao Beina's body. The issue was met with online protests and backlash from thousands, and in the early hours of January 18, 2015, Shenzhen Evening News issued an apology for the incident.

Media law varies in several countries, and in the UK, the publication of pictures of a deceased body would receive severe punishment, but the human reaction to seeing such graphic content online will be worse and if not spark other separate reasons for fallout, such as harm and offence.

Example 2:

The TV is the second most popular source of political news (Herzenberg, Aling’o & Gatimu, 2015). Many people prefer to watch TV at home rather than engage in political activities. Therefore, it soon become a medium for politicians to bombard the viewers with political purposes and project themselves as the best leaders. Some media platforms become powerful electoral actors (Herzenberg, Aling’o & Gatimu, 2015).[14]

The 2016 us presidential election ended with a victory for Mr Trump, who had little experience in politics, over Mrs Clinton, a veteran politician. Behind the big reversal, the important role of social media should not be underestimated. Trump is a standard American "web celebrity". His popularity on social media has reportedly soared since his candidacy began 2015 June, with 10.3 million twitter followers and 9.9 million Facebook followers. By comparison, Clinton has 7.78 million twitter followers and 4.8 million Facebook followers. Using social media platforms, Mr Trump has made a successful political marketing pitch. Mr Trump is not the first person to use social media to win an election. As early as the 1990s, network media, as a new form of media, has entered the stage of history and intervened in political communication. [15]

In 1996, republican candidate Buchanan used his personal website to run for the first time. Some media once commented that "The key factor in determining the outcome of the presidential election is not who understands politics better, but who knows the Internet better." In the 2008 US presidential election, the influence of social media began to emerge. Obama took the lead in using social media such as Twitter and Facebook and succeeded in the ranks, thus achieving the reputation of "Internet President". In 2012, Obama spent more on social media than he did in 2008, 10 times more than his rival Mitt Romney, with more than 21 million twitter followers and nearly 32 million Facebook followers, far more than Romney. He also employs a team of more than 100 people to run his social media accounts. He also employs a team of more than 100 people dedicated to operating his social media account. Since then, social media has been regarded as a disruptive medium in political communication, which will bring about a revolution in political communication.

Concluding RemarksEdit

With the rapid development of network information communication technology, the emerging media represented by the internet rose to prominence in the field of public communication, revolutionized the way of human information transmission, and achieved unprecedented development in human information freedom.

The network information transmission which based on the internet, maintains the citizen's freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the right to know and to supervise the implementation to a maximum extent, but at the same time, network information anonymity, the spread of disorder and arbitrary characteristics also provides the possibility of abusing in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of speech and contributes strong impact on the public interests, national interests and private interests.

It leads to diverse interests damage problems become increasingly vital. While fully enjoying the freedom of information on the internet, the users should also fulfil their obligations to maintain the order of the internet and the security of national information and public order. The internet has provided an unprecedented platform for diversity of speech and the free flow of information, and the freedom of information provided by the internet is not absolutely free.

Change can be expected given the issues the freedom of information online has posed, and given these matters are still technically in their infancy with how new these challenges from online networks are, it may be a while before real change is implemented. But the debate over who's freely entitled to what information and what they can share in the public domain will be sure to rage on for years to come.


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  2. Dollarhide, M. (2019). Social Media. [online] Investopedia. Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].
  3. Ess, C. (2014). Digital Media Ethics. [online] Google Books. Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].
  4. Press Gazette. (2017). Social media copyright lessons for journalists from the Khloe Kardashian case Retrieved from:
  5. USA Today. (2019). Jennifer Lopez sued by paparazzi agency for copyright infringement
  6. Lata Nott.Free expression on social media. Retrieved from
  7. William Fisher. (June 14, 2001). Freedom of expression on the internet. Retrieved from
  8. Richard A. Spinello. (2006). Cyberethics: Morality and law in cyberspace Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  9. Associated Press. (Sat 11 May 2019). Elon musk faces trial after calling British diver a paedophile. Retrieved from
  10. The Guardian. (2017). Katie Hopkins leaves LBC radio show after 'final solution' tweet. Retrieved from:
  11. Chris Rudd, & Janine Hayward. (2005). Media takeover or media intrusion? modernisation, the media and political communications in new Zealand. Political Science, 2(57), 7-16.
  12. Help Net Security. (March 15, 2019). Do people with malicious intent present the biggest threat to personal data? Retrieved from
  13. Phil Taylor. (21st August 2015). Privacy vs media intrusion. Retrieved from
  14. Schulz-Herzenberg, C., Aling’o, P., & Gatimu, S. (2015). The 2013 general elections in Kenya: The integrity of the electoral process.
  15. Liyun Chen. (Dec 12 2016). Social media is changing the traditional political communication ecology (trend). Retrieved from