Marika Pratley (Wellington branch of Workers Party)
Julie Tyler was threatened with serious misconduct by Burger King for posting the comment “Real jobs don’t underpay and overwork like BK does” on a friend’s Facebook page. This event highlighted the limitations of democracy on the internet and social networking sites. It also brings to question limitations on freedom of speech in general – for example – in the workplace.
This is not the first time that workers or activists have faced censorship on social networking sites. In 2010 individual profiles and groups were shutdown by Facebook for expressing support for organisations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2011 Egypt’s entire internet services were shut down by the government in an attempt to prevent communication between organisers and to stop democratic protests from taking place.
Julie Tyler vs Burger King
The response of Burger King New Zealand (BKNZ) was to use Julie as an example to its employees that you cannot speak thoughts on workplace conditions freely to your friends, co-workers publicly. When Julie’s supporters posted comments supporting her right to freedom of expression on the BKNZ Facebook page, the immediate response by BKNZ was to shut the page down (4th of February 2011). When the page was put up again shortly later BKNZ had censored all comments made by Julie’s supporters, and prevented them from posting messages challenging BKNZ.
This reveals that there is not only a double-standard between employers and employees, but also that a power-relationship exists. Employers currently have a strong degree of control over what employees can say and do, while workers are expected to give up their rights to freedom of speech and other aspects of control they could and should have in a workplace. BKNZ and other employers do not want workers like Julie speaking out against them, especially with truths relating to being ‘overworked and underpaid’.
Who controls the internet?
The potential of the internet as a democratic medium is limited because it is ultimately subject to control by capitalists (whether it’s the internet providers or the CEOs of companies like Facebook and Burger King) and capitalist governments. Social networking sites do allow anyone to sign up, but it’s on the condition that users abide to the politics and ideologies of the owners controlling the site. It is ambiguous as to whether social networking sites are in a private or public space, but regardless of that whatever is produced on a social networking site the website owners still have control over what happens with the content/product. Internet censorship simply mirrors the limits to freedom speech that workers have in other avenues of their lives in the ‘real world.’
BKNZ was able to do or say whatever they wanted publicly without any repercussions. When the FARC and PFLP Facebook solidarity groups were shutdown, Facebook was able to do or say whatever they wanted. And when Mubarak’s government in Egypt shut down the internet, and Vodafone shut down cellphone coverage in Egypt, they were able to do this because they are in control of these services.
The internet shutdown in Egypt did not stop people organising against the government, and Burger King’s censorship won’t stop workers from venting about being overworked and underpaid. From a socialist perspective it’s very important to expose and oppose censoring as the role of the internet in real daily life continues to expand.