by Echo Xie
The end of January was all about internet freedom of expression.
As if all the fuss from the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the proposed intellectual property treaty in the European Union (EU) which goes by the acronym ACTA weren’t enough (if you are interested in those topics, please see “Global Sharing Culture: Are SOPA & PIPA Really Over?” for more), Twitter, the ambassador of online free speech published a short notice on its blog that shocked the world. According to the announcement, ironically titled Tweets Still Must Flow, Twitter is now using a new censorship system. The system blocks certain Tweets from users in a specific country. To make it short, it is a technique called the “localization of censorship.”
Apparently, China and Thailand are happy about the change, but not so for the rest of the world. Furious voices were all over the place, calling this move an endorsement of governments’ control over the internet. Although Twitter promised to be transparent about the content they withhold, who cares about the courtesy of a notice when the core of our free expression is challenged? In the heart of a free speech idealist, internet freedom means to say anything anywhere without the fear of intervention or subsequent punishment… all or nothing.
Facing the criticism, Twitter issued an update on the same post claiming this approach is actually “a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability — and for our users.” With this new policy, as Twitter argues, when an “authorized entity” requires taking down a Tweet that violates local laws, Twitter can now withhold it from particular regions while keeping it available for the rest of the world.
Whether there is a benevolent intention behind this policy or not, Twitter has offered a new solution and possibly started a new trend for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to deal with what they called “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” Techdows, a technology blog revealed earlier this week that Google also incorporated a similar technique to redirect Blogspot blogs to country-specific URLs.
Of course none of us is that naïve to believe the internet is like a virtual free land. But part of us still feels betrayed, like our secret hiding place has just been invaded; like the last piece of our childish dream just fell to the ground.
Have we placed too much hope on Twitter?
We tend to confuse technology with magic. Especially after the Arab Spring and last year’s English riots, social media were crowned as the ultimate game-changers. Sometimes we forget, when it comes to revolutions or social changes, Twitter, Facebook or any other shiny new toys are only here to facilitate, at most to ignite.
No matter what happens in the world of technology, we should bear in mind that no fancy tool is capable of determining our fate. Freedom and democracy won’t grow on their own. We have to fight for them, even with our bare hands.
(The graphic is from People’s Open Graphics via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)