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Giving thanks for online rabble-rousers

Photo courtesy of ToastyKen via Flickr

Photo courtesy of ToastyKen via Flickr

In North America and much of Europe, the combination of government-protected free speech and nearly nonexistent barriers to entry in online publishing has created an environment in which companies get punk’d by bloggers and other online influencers all the time. As we’ve said here many times, communications professionals have a responsibility to learn how best to respond to storms of controversy surrounding their brands on the social Web. But since it’s Thanksgiving in America this week, let’s take a moment to think about how lucky we are to have this challenge.

Let me explain what I mean.

A report in The Economist recently mentioned that the regime that took power in the South Pacific nation of Fiji in a 2006 coup has blocked Internet users from accessing some blogs that are critical of the country’s dictator, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. One such blog, Coup Four and a Half, notes that the regime has also seized Fiji’s broadcast licenses. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that Fijian Internet users can get around the blog blockade with software that anonymizes IP addresses.

This year, bloggers in Cuba, Bahrain, India, Azerbaijan, Brazil and lots of other places have seen their free speech rights limited through legislation, prosecution or both. A great way to keep up on these issues is to subscribe to the Freedom of Speech RSS feed from Global Voices Online, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Some of the public relations professionals I talk with share a sense that at least some portion of the online criticism their companies face is unfair or ill-informed. It’s our job to listen, clarify and in some cases defend what our companies do. This week, though, let’s be thankful that we can have these discussions with our critics.

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