Abstract - The Information Society 13(2)

Freedom of Speech and Privacy in the Information Age

John Sopinka

This article explores the ramifications of the information age on the freedom of speech and privacy rights. New technologies such as computer networking have given Canadians greater opportunities to directly participate in the information age. Today individual Canadians have access to very powerful means of expression that enable people to reach wide audiences nationally and internationally at relatively little expense. These technological advances may potentially create numerous positive benefits for our society. However, as with any cutting-edge developments, society must learn to adapt to a whole new range of problems which may also arise. This is equally true of our legal system and the way in which we define basic rights in our society such as the freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

Technology opens new doors of artistic, social intellectual, and political expression. However, the ability to reach a wide audience with little or no regulation also results in a proliferation of speech that many may find hurtful or offensive.

Therefore, it becomes all the more essential that we have an understanding of the meaning of freedom of expression in Canadian society and its limits. No rights or freedoms in a society are absolute. Limits on one person's freedom are imposed when the exercise of that freedom harm or threatens to harm another person or society. As pungently observed by Professor Isaiah Berlin, "In a lake stocked with minnows and minnow-eating pike, freedom for the pike means death to the minnows."

In the early part of this century, the law would never have had to concern itself with the possibility of defamatory statements being spread across the globe electronically in seconds.Nor did we need to concern ourselves about the possibility of the police surreptitiously monitoring every conversation we had. However, in the latter part of this century, these social and technological realities influence the way we define fundamental values of society.

This discussion focuses on the nature of the freedom of expression in Canada as guaranteed under section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I also briefly examine the notion of privacy and the need to take account of this vital interest in free speech will assist in the debate over the ambit of free speech in the context of the information age and computer network communications. I also hope that it will become apparent how evolving technology has, in part, shaped the limits of free speech and the balance that must be struck with other legitimate goals.

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