Censoring of Tweets Sets Off #Outrage
This New York Times article covers the beginnings of Twitter, from a small tool developed in San Francisco by a developer to update friends, to it’s growth and eventual global prominence as a premier social media tool that is capable of bringing down givernments during the Arab Spring.
Twitter must now face the same problems that come from scaling up to Google-like proportions. Google whose own motto is “Do no evil” may be construed to mean “censor search results in China in order to do business there.” Now Twitter must confront situations its founders may have never considered from it’s humble beginnings 5 years ago in Silicon Valley.
Internet users, especially avid social media die hards are never shy to voice their feelings online. Some choice reactions to news that Twitter may censor Tweets in countries with stricter governmental controls read like, “Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends,” wrote Björn Nilsson, a user in Sweden.” While Bianca Jagger asked, almost existentially, “How are we going to boycott #TWITTER?” using Twitter’s signature hash tag(#).
Interestingly enough an academic took the opposing side. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took the other side. “I’m defending Twitter’s policy because it is the one I hope others adopt: transparent, minimally compliant w/ law, user-empowering,” she wrote.
Transparency and casual intellectual discourse may be a luxury of the west. In Thailand, for instance, a Tweet critical of the monarchy is punishable by a jail term with the offending Tweet blocked within the country. The offending Tweet will still be available to those outside of the country, however.
This raises the deeper philosophical question of how we intend to reign in the internet in the future. Presently, the online world is still in many respects like the wild west. There is very little government interference, little tracking save for that done by the largest online companies like Google and Facebook that profit from such info, and nearly zero censorship, at least in the West. Further, the internet is by and large a free space accessible to nearly all with smaller barriers to entry than ever before. Many public spaces and cities offer free Wifi. Some argue that the internet should be as readily available as drinking water to citizens and others even claim it as a human right.
But what of Twitter? Should Twitter exist with censorship, however small? Or should it not exist at all if even the slightest amount of censorship is part of the deal? Since it doesn’t look like Twitter is going away anytime soon, many users will have to accept some forms of censorship when using the service, depending on which country they are in, or else innovate a competing uncensored service. The internet is wildly entrepreneurial, so if someone doesn’t like the way a site or service is run, Twitter or otherwise, they are welcome to start their own. Or perhaps Twitter was never intended to be a political tool in the first place, it just happened to serve that purpose in a given environment. It’s like using an egg beater to mix cement. In a jam, it works, but was it ever really intended for such a use to begin with?
In the end, it is human nature to communicate information from one to another, or one to many. This is something that will never change, but the tools we utilize to do so, online or elsewhere, will continue to adapt to these changing global political environments.