Friday, June 27, 2008

Licentiousness of speech

The internet has become an excellent means to voice web surfers' opinions, feelings, and concerns. No matter where we live, what is our social status or people's education level, every person who has access the internet also has access to different tools that ease the exchange of points of view and comments with other users around the world. Up to this point, it would appear that websites that publish content and allow people to leave comments on it, such as Youtube, blogs or newspapers, are making a very positive impact in society.

Indeed, giving people the necessary vehicles to express their opinions and exercise their freedom of speech is a good thing. But there is a point in which all these positive impacts appear to turn into something rather deceiving and worrying: That's the point in which freedom of speech turns into what I call 'licentiousness of speech'.

The matter is not about people having different points of view. It is normal to have people entering into arguments about different topics, because it is valid to analyze issues from a variety of perspectives. This kind of behavior is undoubtedly enriching. But what happens when uninformed individuals decide to take part of these discussion threads? Moreover, what happens when people utilize the discussion threads to disrespect, insult, lie, or boycott? Of course, these behaviors are what I would classify as licentiousness of speech, which has unfortunately become a quite widespread practice in popular forums and websites.

Examples of this licentiousness of speech are numerous; we can almost pick any random video there and read the related comments to identify these libertines. For instance, I picked a video by Sacha Baron Cohen's character Borat, to illustrate my point. In such video, the English comedian (who is Jewish himself) lures some cowboys to sing along with him a song attacking Jews, just to demonstrate and ridicule how stereotypes against them are still believed and tolerated by some groups. Of course, this video posted on youtube and the possibility of leaving comments on it was a perfect opportunity for ignorant punks to exercise their licentiousness of speech. Some of the comments are both outrageous and worrying:

  • A user under the nickname ozcohen20 asks "what (sic) the problem with jews? they are nice people! i got a (sic) many jews (sic) friends, and they are very good people", to which another individual nicknamed zouritje replies: "ye right ure (sic) jew , jews take all the money and control america a**hole so they fight ure (sic) wars".
  • Another ignorant surfer, under the nickname Thelavendel, comments: "I hate jews. I wish you people got eaten by sharks". Not only the comment is totally disrespectful and condemnable, but it also gets voted as a "good comment" by other users.
  • Yet another uninformed speech libertine, hidden under the nickname Wraitheyes161, expresses the following: "Lmao yeah F*ck jews almost got killed by one!!!!!!! So the Germans had it right. Damn you America just cause the Japs spilled your shake!". This comment, too, gets voted as a "good one".
The list of inappropriate comments could go on and on, and as I say, it is not only a phenomenon shown in one specific video in Youtube, but it appears in virtually any online forum to which every user may have access. The key problem of this issue is the disrespect among people, and the publishing of inappropriate comments, based on untrue information, hatred and personal bias. It would be convenient, for the well being of internet users around the world and for the sake of harmony between web surfers, to have some sort of control in which these behaviors could be minimized. But who's here to act as cyber-cop? And how to define the exact border between freedom of speech and licentiousness of speech? I don't know. But hopefully someday we'll be able to get rid of this pandemic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zimbabwe: The day that democracy died

Democracy was fatally wounded in Zimbabwe a long time ago. In fact, it is unclear whether ever the concept of "democracy" ever existed in such African nation. Since it became an independent state in 1980, Zimbabwe has been ruled by an individual whose populist ideas, brutal repression, corruption, and addiction to power have turned the once-prosperous country into an economical, political and social disaster: From being known as the bread-basket of Africa due to the exports of food from the fertile Zimbabwean soil to the rest of African nations, Zimbabwe is today a country sunk in a 150,000% annual inflation rate (by far the worst in the world), with an unemployment rate as high as 80%, and with a political system where president Robert Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, do not allow any sort of criticism (let alone opposition) to the regime.

In these times of turmoil for Zimbabweans, most of which are surviving below the poverty line and lack the very basic goods and services to live in humanly-acceptable conditions, it appeared that the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his party, Movement for the Democratic Change (MDC), would finally bring Mugabe off power after their victory on the presidential elections held earlier this year. But even though Mugabe and ZANU-PF lost control of the Zimbabwean House of Assembly and the Senate for the first time since the independence of the country, they managed to manipulate the elections enough to call a run-off election scheduled for June 27, 2008.

From March to June, ZANU-PF had enough time to learn from their mistakes to make sure that they don't lose the election in June, as they did in March: As a report from The Guardian explains, ZANU-PF organized groups to seek and beat people who voted for the MDC in the previous election, to make sure that they 'change their minds' for the run-off voting. Civilians were even killed by these groups. Their crime? Wanting to be freed from the oppression, dictatorship, and crisis that Mugabe's regime has created as a means of keeping power.

Violations of human rights in Zimbabwe know no limits under Mugabe's rule, and it goes from censorship of freedom of speech, to threats, to beatings, to assassinations, and to any necessary means that help Mugabe and his party to keep in office. As a result of that, Morgan Tsvangirai decided today to pull out from the run-off election. Although he has not undergone the official procedures to quit his candidacy, it appears to be imminent. If Tsvangirai pulls out officially, that would mean the permanence of Mugabe and ZANU-PF in power.

We cannot blame Morgan Tsvangirai for his decision. At the end of the day, his rationale makes a lot of sense: "We in the MDC cannot ask them [the voters] to cast their vote on June 27, when that vote could cost them their lives". And it is not only the voters' lives, but Tsvangirai's own life is at risk as well. Let's not forget that he has also been subject to arrests, tortures, beatings, and other violations by Mugabe's forces. But having the opposition out of the run-off election also means a victory for Mugabe's oppressive methods, and moreover, it shows that democracy in this African nation is dead... and the hope for better days remains a distant dream.

More information available on The Globe and Mail.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A stop to free downloads in Canada?

In recent days, a lot of speculation has arisen around the new controversial federal copyright legislation to be approved in Canada. It is essentially an update of the current copyright law (which was last updated in 1997), in which a few new measures and penalties are considered. Among the changes proposed, it contains penalties of up to $500 Canadian dollars for each copyrighted file downloaded illegally (e.g. mp3 files downloaded from P2P programs such as Limewire), fines up to $20,000 for each file uploaded illegally, and also severe penalties for breaking digital locks (also known as Digital Rights Management technology or simply DRM).

Well, that news has been rolling in the most important newspapers nationwide lately, and of course people have expressed their concern about this new regulation. I have analyzed the comments that people have posted in forums and other communication tools available on the web, and overall people agree that the copyrights law should be updated (even though that would mean that free downloads of copyrighted material would no longer be legal, as it currently happens in Canada). However, I come to the conclusion that people are worried about the following issues:

  • Privacy: Users are worried that the authorities will invade the people's privacy in order to locate illegally downloaded material. More specifically, people are worried that internet service providers will pass private online activity information to the authorities, and also that customs agents will act as watchdogs for this issue and will potentially analyze private information and confiscate electronic devices (mp3 players, laptops, cellphones, and so on).
  • Evidence: Digital consumers are also concerned about how will the authorities identify lawfully downloaded material from illegal contents, should they inspect a person's device. Is it that people will have to carry the proof of purchase of every piece of software they carry in their equipment?
  • DRM locks: Won't users be allowed to make copies of their own rightfully purchased content any longer if the producer decided to put a DRM lock on it?
The authorities have quickly issued comments where they state that privacy won't be affected by this new regulation. However, they didn't issue a clear statement on the DRM issue, which is one of the biggest concerns about the updated law. Since unlocking software to copy will be illegal, that means that making copies of legal material for personal use or backup will be prosecuted; and, as this sort of prosecution is in the best interest of producers, will there be any of them who won't be putting locks on their products at all?

Needless to say, software producers and music recording labels were the first ones to express their satisfaction with these new project of law. But the law is supposed to be protecting intellectual property, such as musicians, authors and programmers. The question would be, should the new law be approved, will those supposed to be protected get a benefit from it? The answer appears to be no, as the money collected from fines and other penalties imposed to consumers would most likely end up in the pockets of corporations rather than the actual creators of intelectual property.

This initiative is due to be discussed later this year. Not only some skeptics think that this law would be totally unenforceable, but many see in it a premature failure, as the minority ruling Conservative party will face criticism and opposition from other parties in the Parliament. Let's keep an eye on this matter, as criticism and emotions are guaranteed!

Please refer to the note in The Globe and Mail for in-depth information about this issue

Friday, June 13, 2008

New hurdles for the European Union

Important things have been happening in Europe lately. While most of the attention in Europe is concentrated in the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, there are some matters that haven't been widely reported by the media recently, all of which affect the fate of the European Union's development.

The European efforts to make the European Union to become a single, multi-national country (as ironic as that sounds) were thwarted once again by voters. Just as it happened back in 2005, when French and Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected a European Constitution, it was now the turn for Irish voters to decide whether to ratify or reject the Lisbon Treaty, which is regarded by many as a new effort to introduce the European Constitution.

The result is far from surprising: A great majority of Irish voters decided that they don't want their country to go ahead on its way to ratify such plan. That is a big hit to the European Union's plan, as its policies require unanimous approval from all member States to implement new laws and regulations.

As it was expected, the Irish vote against the treaty has brought lots of criticism from people not only in Europe, but around the world, claiming that Ireland is slowing down the development of the Union by opposing the Lisbon treaty. How is it possible that the Irish population of less than 5 million people can turn down the will of the rest of the Union, which adds up to more than 450 million people? Well, we cannot be sure that the rest of the European Union is really wishing this treaty to be ratified. Let's not forget that Ireland was in fact the only member State that let its population go to a referendum to ratify or reject such matter; the rest of the countries just held a parliamentary votes rather than going to public consultation.

What would have happened if every country in the European Union let its population vote to accept or reject the treaty? Would more countries have rejected it through referenda? We won't know. It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened in countries like France and the Netherlands, where voters turned down the European Constitution. But that was not the case this time, as both countries passed amendments to their national regulations where vetoes could be applied to referenda, in case that the democratic votes go against the European will. Fortunately for the Irish, their own Constitution requires the country to call referenda whenever these EU treaties, regulations and laws require an unanimous approval from the member States... at least for now.

So what's next? Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland, has an idea about it. He made the following statement after hearing the results of the Irish referendum: "Ireland will find for sure a way to ratify this treaty". In other words, Mr. Tusk is suggesting that the Irish government will probably introduce vetoes and other reforms to ignore the voters' will and ratify the treaty without delay. That is by far the most anti-democratic comment I have read in recent times, and it is more surprising to know that it comes from a leader whose country belongs to a Union that boasts about its democracy and freedom.

Other than that, I congratulate the Irish voters for expressing their will in the ballots, and I also acknowledge the other member States for respecting the results of the referendum in Ireland.

More information about the Irish referendum and its results is available in The Globe and Mail.
Photo by AP

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tomatoes... we miss you

The health authorities in the US issued in the past days a warning to consumers and businesses to avoid certain types of tomatoes after a salmonella outbreak. The situation is quite serious: according to a report by BBC, there have been 145 cases of salmonella reported since mid-April, distributed in 17 states across the United States.

As the FDA is investigating the origin of the outbreak, certain companies have decided to stop serving and distributing some types of tomato. Some of the companies include Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Burger King, and Subway, the latter of which has also pulled its tomatoes from its stores in Canada (not sure whether McDonald's and Burger King have done the same yet).

It is good that the authorities take this situation seriously. It is crucial to prevent the disease from spreading in North America, but for a person who really values the taste of tomatoes in their sandwiches and salads (such as myself), these are quite tough times. Hopefully the quarantine will not be too long, but in the meantime I can firmly assure: Tomatoes... we miss you.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dunkin' terrorism?

Dunkin' Donuts pulled out an ad from the internet last week. Such ad featured Rachael Ray wearing a black and white scarf and promoting an iced coffee beverage. Nothing extremely odd until this point, other than the reason for which the ad was pulled: the black and white scarf.

It looks that the scarf reminded people in the audience of the keffiyah that Arab mean wear in their heads. Moreover, although the keffiyah has been worn by Arab men for centuries, it was made popular in the western world by Yasser Arafat, the deceased Palestinian president, along with other terrorists who have been involved in attacks against civilian targets worldwide, especially against the interests of countries such as the United States, England, Denmark and Israel.

As a result of this odd link between terrorists, keffiyah and the western hemisphere, Dunkin' Donuts' ad received tons of negative criticism. Although the donut chain has denied any intentions to promote terrorism or anti-western messages with such online ad, I have reviewed some opinions posted by the audience in the internet where people seem to be really upset about the scarf in the ad, accusing Dunkin' Donuts of supporting terrorism and of fitting a subliminal message in their campaign.

I find the accusations quite interesting. Even though the design of the scarf does indeed remind of the keffiyah worn by Arab men (and linked to the image of terrorism), I seriously doubt that a donut company would be willing to support terrorism in such a bizarre way. It is more likely an odd coincidence of a marketing campaign that simply went wrong when Rachael Ray picked a scarf that would just not be welcome by the audience.

However, there is an important moral in this whole story, and that is that people demonstrating their awareness about the problem of extremism and terrorism, and they are rejecting it and raising their voice against it. Let's not allow any support to terrorism, or any of its organizations, by any means.