You knew this was coming, didn’t you? In the victory against SOPA and PIPA, advocates for the free and open Internet successfully fended off censorship imposed by government; now we are reminded that there’s nothing preventing online social networks from censoring themselves as the cost of doing business. From the New York Times:
[T]his week, in a sort of coming-of-age moment, Twitter announced that upon request, it would block certain messages in countries where they were deemed illegal. The move immediately prompted outcry, argument and even calls for a boycott from some users.
Twitter in turn sought to explain that this was the best way to comply with the laws of different countries. And the whole episode, swiftly amplified worldwide through Twitter itself, offered a telling glimpse into what happens when a scrappy Internet start-up tries to become a multinational business.
“Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends,” wrote Björn Nillson, a user in Sweden. [...]
The announcement signals the choice that a service like Twitter has to make about its own existence: Should it be more of a free-speech tool that can be used in defiance of governments, as happened during the Arab Spring protests, or a commercial venture that necessarily must obey the laws of the lands where it seeks to attract customers and eventually make money?
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of “The Master Switch,” said the changes could undermine the usefulness of Twitter in authoritarian countries.
“I don’t fault them for wanting to run a normal business,” he said. “It does suggest someone or something else needs to take Twitter’s place as a political tool.”
Color me utterly unsurprised. As I wrote in an earlier post:
I’ve always found it ironic and a little disturbing that the democratic flowering of free speech that we see on Twitter and Facebook is taking place on a decidedly undemocratic, corporate platform. In a panel on the Internet and the Arab world, [Micah] Sifry and other panelists note this as well:
The role and responsibility of social networks was debated by the panelists, with Sifry saying, “I’m terrified that we’re relying on these corporate entities to enable this kind of activity. It’s very dangerous. There’s really no reason they have to be socially responsible at all. Their responsibility is to the bottom line. Twitter did not have to inform its users that the Justice Department was seeking all of their IP information in this WikiLeaks situation. They’re under no obligation to tell you. How do we get out of conducting vital public discourse, organizing, on a corporate foundation? [...]
We’re all dancing on a rug owned by others, with no guarantee that the owners won’t someday pull it out from under us.
It seems as if that day is sooner than we think, if indeed it hasn’t come already.
So my question still stands: how do we avoid depending on corporations — like Twitter, and, for that matter, WordPress — for our free speech? How do we keep the people’s voices free?
(Update: Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing has much, much more.)
(Image via PC Mag)