Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Tweeting Freedom of Speech Pt 1

I have been getting into Twitter over the past month, thanks to a workshop at a local brewery (always the best kind) by fellow Left Coast Voices blogger, Roger Ingalls. In a few months, I have steadily attracted more than 10,000 twitter followers and stream this blog to them (@alonshalevsf). In addition, I have gathered more than 8,000 followers for my @elfwriter twitter and blog.

I had originally dismissed Twitter as a platform claiming that it lacked depth. How can you have a conversation with 140 characters? I really began to reevaluate Twitter while watching its role and impact  in the Arab Spring. Suddenly this tool, as a focus for freedom of speech,  became particularly inspiring.

Twitter are well aware of this. Chief Executive Officer, Dick Costolo, refers to it as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, even named one of their conference rooms “Tahrir Square” as a point of pride at the role that Twitter played in the Egyptian uprising.

So I became somewhat disillusioned to read that Twitter are considering curbing our freedom. In what many view as an about-face, Twitter now says it has the power to block tweets in a specific country if the government legally requires it to do so, triggering outrage around the world, especially in Arab countries.

Dissidents and activists fear the new policy will stifle free speech and thousands of users are threatening to boycott Twitter.

“Is it safe to say that Twitter is selling us out?” asked Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem.

Twitter isn’t alone in its struggle to find a way of maintaining its economic goals while considering itself the free speech platform. Facebook, Google and Yahoo all tentatively try and work around complex laws and state-imposed restrictions used to suppress dissident voices and spread the party line.

All these companies have taken down material posted through their sites because a regime felt threatened by the content or deemed it illegal.

However, Twitter insists that it remains fully committed to free speech. When Twitter removes a tweet, it no longer vanishes from the Web, like it used to. In other words, when a tweet violates the law in one country, it will  still be on the Internet in other countries.

The company will only remove tweets when there is sound legal standing in the specific country and claim this will happen only after an internal review. They will also post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed.

This creates an interesting dilemma. Tweets have a very short lifetime. They are soon buried under an avalanche of other tweets, whether from the same person or others in their following. This can often happen in under a minute and I am guessing that in a situation such as we saw unfold in Tahrir Square, it is a matter of seconds. How effective and timely can an internal review be?

More on Internet censorship on Wednesday.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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