Occupy Twitter in the name of the global citizen

Twitter can now censor tweets by country. National borders, drawn on paper and defended with razor wire and guns in the physical world, now have a presence on the internet as well. You won’t find politicians complaining — but maybe the rest of us should.

It was interesting to see how Twitter decided to break the news of its new localised censorship policy — in the name of transparency of course — by framing it through the blighted heritage of the Nazis that will see it abiding by national laws in France, Germany and Israel banning pro-Nazi content. It was the obvious PR route to take — and a cowardly one — how many people will publicly fault anyone for taking a stand against those evil bastards (that would be the Nazi’s Mr Ahmadinejad)?

But let’s take that policy and apply it to a country like Uganda which had been considering draconian measures against its gay and lesbian citizens, including the death penalty, and which could make it illegal for gay rights organisations to function (and by implication tweet about their activities) in that country, and see how defensible it is then. Yes, as Twitter puts it in its blog statement announcing its decision to abide by country legislation, some countries have “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.”

Nigeria has also introduced a bill to make “gay organisations” (read organisation supporting human rights for the broader gay community) illegal. The Nigerian legislation would send you to jail for 10 years if you “… directly or indirectly make [a] public show of same-sex amorous relationships”. Arguably this would include doing so online — no Valentine’s Day tweets for gay Nigerians then.

And in  Russia, The Guardian reports, the St Petersburg legislative assembly approved, “in its first reading, a bill which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality, transsexuality and paedophilia to minors.” The legislation reads a bit like that Twitter blog post — just lump the gays and transsexuals in with a bunch of evil bastards — like paedophiles — to take the worst of the heat off it. ‘Promotion’ could arguably include tweets portraying gay people in a positive light.

For that matter what about people converting from one faith to another and speaking publicly about it in countries where it is illegal to do so (like any number of Middle Eastern and North African states)? The contours of freedom often get twisted beyond recognition — well Twitter will have to recognise it now.

Reporters Without Borders asks, in an open letter to Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, “Are you going to block the accounts of Syrian cyberdissidents if the Syrian authorities tell you to do so? Does this mean that Twitter could render the Reporters Without Borders Twitter account (@RSF_RWB) inaccessible in countries where we often denounce repressive practices and freedom of information violations, and where the authorities are ready to do anything to silence us?”

The contours of freedom — individual, political or religious — differ vastly across the globe, as the board of Twitter itself acknowledges, and often takes little notice of  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which article 19 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Bowing to country legislation surely means doing so in a consistent fashion. Has the board of Twitter really considered what this means — well beyond their bottom line — to you and to me?

I agree that Twitter has allowed for loopholes that would see individuals potentially bypass its new policy. How long will it last though? Will those contours of freedom be drawn a little tighter when politicians in one important market or another demand it? If you can take one step back from freedom of expression why not another? Why not a bunch of times. In the interests of your global user base of course.

Much of the world spent the larger part of 2011 protesting and rebelling against the increasingly intertwined economic and political elite. Their media, the newspapers, television and radio, are owned and controlled by those same elite. That is as true, by varying degrees I admit, for the protesters in the Occupy movement in the US as it is for the protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Adding the internet, increasingly claimed by global corporations, to this mix, is a step back in our universal quest to the dignity of and rights to personal freedom and freedom of speech. It is another nail in the coffin of the “global citizen” — a body of persons “national” legislation has no interest in protecting and every reason to undermine.

Twitter will be censoring information in the name of the law. If only those laws offered justice for all of us equally.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.