The internet has enabled a lot of people from all around the world to communicate with others and has provided a platform for those without a voice to speak up and reach out for an international audience without any physical restriction, and just as much as it has brought the best of people in terms of creativity and innovation, it has also brought the worst of people as it enabled them to talk freely under the cape of anonymity.
I do not think that I am the only one who said some really strange things to people online which I will never dream of saying to their faces in real life. A visit to any public discussion board on the internet would show you how much people swear at others, make fun of them, and even maybe harass them. Many people forget that there are human beings behinds these nicknames with feelings that could get hurt.
The concept of freedom of expression is pretty new to the traditionally conservative Omani society, and the sudden explosion of opportunities opened by the web led some to assume that freedom of expression means that they have the right to say whatever they want, just because they can, without thinking about the consequences, but the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where freedom of speech is an unlimited right, because no matter what personal right a person has, it must not infringe on the rights of others.
In Oman, and many other countries, this right is restricted by some other legal principles such as defamation and breach of confidence. Defamation is generally defined as the act of spreading false information about a person which could harm that person’s reputation. This law is much stricter in Oman than in some other places like the UK or the USA as defamation is a criminal act and not merely a civil matter. In addition to this, there is no clear requirement in the law for the statement to be false for it to be offensive but merely requires it to have the consequence of damaging that person’s reputation.
Freedom of expression is further restricted by the law of the breach of confidence, if a person receives any information with a clear expectation to keep that information in confidence, that person would be under a legal duty not to disclose that information to anyone else. This is a general principle that applies to all sorts of information whether it was a private issue told between friends or a serious confidential document delivered in a professional capacity, for example, the medical records of a patient.
These two are examples of the most obvious restrictions to freedom of expression on the internet or otherwise, but are not the only ones, in Oman, the Telecommunication Law also provides for a number of other restrictions such as prohibiting the transmission of harmful and untruthful messages through any means of communication.
The perception of the internet as an unregulated medium that allows people to say anything they want is far from true, the legal system covers a wide number of instances where speech on the internet could be punishable, and with the development of new methods for tracking the visitors of a website, it becomes not too difficult to enforce these laws on the internet.
This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.