Are We Stifling Our Workers Freedom of Speech?

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As technology has advanced so have worries regarding privacy. No longer confined to watercooler gossip, our private conversations, often conducted via email or internal webchats, are more available than ever to our employers.

This worry has become the subject of the latest controversies within Silicon Valley, throwing freedom of speech thoroughly into the spotlight. So while at work, should we really be able to question our boss’s tactics or complain that we aren’t paid enough?

Twitter, a forum that survives on the anonymous opinions of its users, recently ruled that the same rules shouldn’t be applied to their workers. Joining the long line of tech companies to do so, they shut down an online site which allowed employees to air their grievances from behind a mask. Forcing employees to reveal their true identities when posting concerns about the day to day running’s of the company, Twitter claimed the new ruling was in response to criticism of the platforms support of LGBTQ rights.

Twitter aren’t the first to claim criticism of diversity programs as their reasoning behind shutting down private conversations. In August, Facebook closed down anonymous in-house forum, FB Anon, after it became a ‘hub’ for Donald Trump supporters, making a variety of sexist and racist remarks.

Claiming a “cornerstone of our culture is being open”, Facebook determined that the internal group violated Facebook’s terms of service, which unlike Twitter requires external users to use “an authentic identity on [their] platform”.

Among the posts that drew attention and anger were those that mirrored comments made by Google engineer James Damore. With claims that Facebook “lowered the bar to attract female engineers”, toeing the same line as Damore’s claims women weren’t “biologically good at tech”.

Damore’s claims, which eventually led to his firing, have drawn the most controversy, with campaigners claiming that no matter how unsavory his comments were, his right to say them should be undisputed. Having posted his manifesto within an internal forum however, left Damore open to backlash, immediately drawing his employers and fellow colleagues into a debate that wasn’t “viewpoint neutral”.

Despite Google seemingly being on the right side of the law, Damore may actually have cause for legal action.  With workers legally allowed to raise concerns about working conditions, which labor lawyer, Valerie Sharpe, suggests could be proven by his “carefully worded manifesto”.

Damore’s case didn’t just blow up headlines due to his placement within a company until now assumed to be wholly left-leaning, but because of an already deepening fear that our private opinions were being stifled. With employees across the world being fired for statements made not just on work forums but social media platforms, comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 aren’t far behind.

These fractures, within the tech industry, do raise interesting questions about whether anonymous forums are in fact a helpful tool for employers, allowing staff members the courage to raise serious concerns they may have about the workplace and senior members of staff, without fear of retribution.

But does freedom of speech really mean freedom from consequences? And regardless of whether you agree with Damore or not, should a colleague really be fired for airing their grievances?