Freedom of speech in the computer age was thrown dramatically into the question by a pair of recent stories. The first was the news that Ford would be offering its entire 350,000-member work force an Internet connected computer for $5.00 a month. This move was made more startling by the praise Ford received from Stephen Yokich, the head of the UAW, who said “This will allow us to communicate with our brothers and sisters from around the world.” This display of unanimity between management and the unions was in bizarre contrast to an announcement later in the week concerning Northwest airlines flight attendants. US District Judge Donovan Frank ruled that the home PCs of Northwest airlines flight attendants could be confiscated and searched by Northwest, who were looking for evidence of email organizing a New Year’s sickout. Clearly corporations do not look favorably on communication amongst their employees. If the legal barriers to privacy on a home PC are weak now, and if a large number of worker’s PCs will be on loan from their parent company, the freedom of speech and relative anonymity we’ve taken for granted on the Internet to date will be seriously tested, and the law may be of little help.
Freedom of speech evangelists tend to worship at the altar of the First Amendment but it is far less sweeping than people imagine. Since the first amendment only prohibits governmental interference in speech and says nothing against commercial interference what happens when there is no public space, ie; as when all the available space is commercially owned? All online space may become some kind of commercial space where the protections of the first amendment will no longer reach.