Has Twitter sold out free speech?

January 31, 2012 11:11 am

Social media and online content has, largely, been censorship free. But all that is now changing…

Middle East activists are concerned that Twitter is bowing to government pressure

News emerging from Twitter HQ in San Francisco has social activists and free-speech advocates nervous. The micro-blog site has recently announced that it can – and will – block tweets in countries if legally compelled to do so by that country’s government. Which means if a government passes a law, or issues a directive, that makes tweeting about certain issues or events illegal, those tweets will be removed from the feed.

Given the role Twitter played in last year’s ‘Arab Spring’, when social media-fuelled uprisings brought about regime change in a number of Middle East countries, there are concerns that Twitter is about to remove a significant weapon from the people power arsenal: ‘Is it safe to say that Twitter is selling us out?’ asked Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The irony in all this is that Twitter has long positioned itself as a champion of free speech. Its CEO, Dick Costolo, has even called it ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. The company itself has promised to be as transparent as possible and to only remove tweets when legally required to do so (and only then after internal review). Any removed tweets will still be visible on Twitter outside the country concerned and, says the Los Angeles Times, ‘will share the removal requests on the Chilling Effects website, which advocates for internet freedom and tracks take-down notices.’

It may be that people are getting concerned over nothing; that Twitter will continue to be a positive force for social change. On the other hand, cynics can point to the recent purchase of a three per cent stake by Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal and question whether Twitter’s apparent shift is completely coincidental.

Twitter’s stated goal is to grow to a billion users (from the current 100 million). Is free speech compatible with that ambition?

 

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