Saturday, February 4, 2012

Losing My Religion

The last days of January 2012 were black days for social media as they once were. First Twitter unveiled a new system to censor specific tweets in specific countries if the content violates local laws. Then Facebook Inc. filed for a initial public offering last Wednesday, meaning Mark Zuckerberg has definitely turned you and your friends into stocks traded on Wall Street.

I participated in #TwitterBlackout day on Saturday January 28, protesting against the new policy of censorship Twitter is about to enforce, or rather, is about to offer to potential new markets with repressive regimes. It was hard not to tweet for an entire day, but I did it (and there is always the "DM...)!

Some people like freedom of expression activist Jillian C. York (@jilliancyork on Twitter) were, surprisingly for me, very much unfazed by Twitter's newest move into global mainstream. They argued that Twitter can't be above the law. The rule of the law - I read - "take it, leave it or fight it". But with what if not with free speech and an uncensored exchange of opinions can I challenge the powers that are? Someone saying better to have a censored Twitter than no Twitter at all makes a business point, not a free speech point! Does Twitter want me to go violent because my tweets are blocked?

Twitter representatives were quick to ride out the global wave of anger that had engulfed them. Of course the Arab Spring still had happened, even with our new "tweet and cut" policy, because tweets in Egypt asking for Mubarak to take a hike hadn't been removed from Twitter's timeline. And China? We don't know yet, that is a far away market for us. But wasn't it against the law to demand Mubarak to go? Is Twitter standing above the law in one country - Egypt - while trying to assuage a potential wrath of another country - China - by introducing a new censorship policy in a first step of anticipatory obedience?

Would Twitter censor tweets asking for regime change in Cuba (probably against the law) or tweets supporting the Green Movement in Iran, or any other group opposing the Mullahs in Tehran? Will a future Twitter erase tweets celebrating the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan and cheering a return to power by the Taliban? Is it just my anti-imperialistic mind that sees Twitter sitting in the White House alongside Hillary Clinton?

standing in the shadow of power: Twitter's Jack Dorsey

Question remain, even the supporters of Twitter admit. Twitter says they will erase tweets "on demand" from authorities and countries where this particular tweet was written and deemed to be against the law. How long will it take until a tweet is taken off the air? Most tweets are "history" after one minute, so what's the point to erase them after one hour or one week? In most respectable countries, it is a matter of the judicial system to rule something, to rule a tweet being "against a law". And in most respectable countries legal procedures are a matter of months, if not years. Or will we see a Wild West type of censorship system established by and with Twitter where the rule is: erase first, judge later? Will Twitter even hand over "erase power" to state authorities? (In China, in 2010, several party and government bodies in charge of Internet censorship policies had deleted 350 million pieces of “harmful content” from the Chinese Internet over the course of one year.) Questions remain.

At the end of the day, Twitter is (or wants to be) a commercial enterprise (although I still have a difficult time to see their money making model). They will turn away from their religion of a micro-blogging service, and going macroeconomics instead, trying to follow Facebook to the NYSE. But: a revolution is not built on tweets alone. If Twitter keeps going on like this, I am sure that dissident minded people will develop and find other outlets for their dangerous thoughts. Already Ai Weiwei (@aiww) has made it clear that "if Twitter censors, I'll leave". That, also, is the power of the market. 

In a new book, former CNN correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon explains how Beijing, and its loyal corporate minions, scrub "disharmonious" material from the Chinese Web. MacKinnon quotes Chinese official Wang Chang who, in an excerpt from a December 2010 speech, tells us how it works: “We are following the overall thinking of combining Internet content management with industry management and security supervision; combining prior review and approval with supervision afterwards; combining technological blocking with public opinion guidance; combining hierarchical management with local management; combining government management with industry self-regulation; and combining online monitoring with offline management.” And yes, this is not 1984 my friends.