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Twitter censorship raises spectre of corporate control over information

The furor over Twitter’s announcement last month that it would allow the geo-blocking of messages turns out to have been something…

By Meg Mittelstedt , in 2012 Blogs Hacking at the Darkness: Musings on social movements and technology , on February 14, 2012 Tags: , , ,

Image courtesy of Flickr user IsaacMao via Creative Commons

The furor over Twitter’s announcement last month that it would allow the geo-blocking of messages turns out to have been something of a tempest in a teapot.

The uproar arose out of a misunderstanding: that Twitter was going to filter all tweets and selectively block those with content offensive to repressive governments. In fact, it will only retroactively block tweets upon request. A recent announcement from Twitter suggests that it will block tweets only in response to legal obligations within the various countries into which Twitter is now expanding. However, the move has raised an important question: Is our trust in private corporations to provide our internet utilities misplaced?

A “Twitter blackout” in protest of Twitter “censorship” was mostly a fizzle. Now that the dust has settled, calmer heads have prevailed and some are pointing to Twitter’s move to partner with website Chilling Effects to transparently show which countries are requesting censoring of tweets, calling it a smart move on the company’s part.

It has been suggested that the blocked tweets – which will appear in a greyed-out box with a line stating where the tweet has been blocked – could even help draw attention to repressive censorship, thus shaming countries into better behaviour.

However, the more important issue Twitter’s new policy raises is that it highlights just how much the world has come to rely on the services of private corporations as human rights. We now believe that it is our right to tweet, to use Facebook and to upload data to cloud storage. We’re relying on private companies not only for our public utilities, but also to fuel revolutions and overthrow governments. We’re trusting that they have our best interest in mind. But since private companies are in the business of making a profit, is our good faith misplaced?

Much was made of the role of Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal’s $300 million December investment in Twitter in this the new geo-blocking policy. While it is unlikely that the prince’s 3 per cent stake is behind the new policy, it does raise a concern: What if someone like bin Talal had substantial control of one of these internet utilities on which the world now relies?

For what began as a largely community-based service is becoming increasingly corporation-controlled.

We now willingly upload private information, business presentations, and all manner of personal information onto the servers of corporations like Twitter, Facebook and Prezi. Increasingly, we are handing over our data for free without much certainty as to what protections will be given (pdf) to it now, or in the future.

Information is power. We’re more certain of that than ever before. Why, then, are we so willingly giving so much of it away?