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Firewalls versus free speech
27 Jul 2010
BY NATALIE HAYNES

Hello there, Indexers. This is my last blog till September. Yes, you read that right. Although I seem all unconventional and bohemian, I am taking August off, like teachers, school-children, and parents of school-children. I’m not going away, though, so don’t worry. If you suddenly need a small rant about something freedom-of-speechy, you can just mail me and I’ll be vexed for a sentence or two, to keep you going. And I don’t like the summer, so I’ll be counting the days till I come back to you. I won’t be off having fun without you, seeing other blogs, wondering if we could just be friends. No way.

Do you read this in an office? I realised the other week than I haven’t worked in an office since computer screens were black with green writing on. So I don’t know how spreadsheets work, or what PowerPoint is. Or why you would wish to merge mail, or what that entails. I don’t like not knowing things, so I feel kinda bad about this. Perhaps I could use my summer productively, finding out.

One of the downsides of not having worked in an office since the internet began is that I find the conventions of office netiquette hard to guess. For example, I cannot swear if I write to my brother, who works in, you guessed it, an office. If I do swear, in an email to him, his company blocks the mail and sends me a shitty note telling me they have (see, I’m swearing already. Fluent in three languages and I still can’t help myself). They also send him a shitty note, telling him to stop getting mail from his sweary, awful sister.

I used to complain to him about this: it seems to me such a massive, stupid waste of time, money and life. Who really has the energy to employ someone whose whole job involves telling people off for their language, like Ronnie Corbett’s dad in the lame 80s sitcom, Sorry! Who applies for that job? How to you prove you have the necessary skills? Do you have references for being an irritating killjoy who sucks freedom of expression from a room?

My brother pointed out that it was simply something that fell foul of the firewall his company has in place. I didn’t really see why they would need a firewall at all — it’s not like they’re the Pentagon. Hackers have better things to do. But he asked how I would feel if I worked in an office and looked over at my colleague’s desk and saw they were looking at porn. Like I say, I haven’t worked in an office for a while, but things have obviously changed a great deal since I did. Was it only lack of availability that was holding office-workers back from at-desk porn-consumption before? This seems to me the most depressing way of treating your staff: you must prevent them from seeing porn at work, or they will all promptly start looking at porn at work. As though that is how people behaved before the internet, when presumably there was nothing preventing anyone from taking porn mags into the office. Nothing apart from the basic realisation that that would be freaky and weird. Let’s be honest, public shame is a great regulator.

But the no-swearing rule deprives office-workers of a valuable stress-busting resource: namely, emailing a pal to complain about a crappy day, and calling the people they work with/for cunts, in the certain knowledge that their friend will agree, and they can then adjourn to the pub and compare notes on whose boss is cuntiest. Plus, they don’t get to coin superlatives like that, which is a crying shame.

And it affects the way the rest of us behave. Today, for example, I went to email someone in a state of considerable ire. Not with my intended recipient, of course. But with someone we both knew who had behaved in a manner which really required the description, “fucker”. I was cross with the third party. I knew my friend would be on my side. She might even have been cheered by my experience, convincing her, as it would, that she is not merely being intolerant of the offending party but that he is, objectively, a fucker. And I stopped, as I was writing, and wondered if the mail would get through if I used the word, or if I should asterisk it. And I know, I know, that she’s at work, and it’s her work address, and blah blah blah, but really. She’s met me, she knows I swear. Knows it, and perhaps even likes it. I’ve even been to her office and sworn in it in life, so it’s not like it would come as a surprise.

I sent the mail anyway, and it did get through in the end, although it was mysteriously delayed (while, I presume, some fella in the IT department checked it for treasonous thoughts). But if her company can cope, can’t they all? Can we do away with the no-swearing rule, and be allowed to be the foul-mouthed adults we already are?

One response to “Firewalls versus free speech”

  1. Roger Pearse says:

    Well said. Little by little we are being turned into serfs, spied on at every turn, with no recourse against the tiniest little Hitler.

    It is a mark of unfree societies that petty officials make everyone’s life a misery, often with self-invented rules. We need to resist this erosion of our freedom.

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