Posted at 03:24 pm

Standing Up For Internet Freedom

I had something really unusual happening this year. I reached the end of January with my New Year's resolution intact. For those who don't remember, or didn't read that post, my New Year's resolution this year was to make more effective use of social media, especially by making better use of Twitter. I know, it's not as hard as a resolution to climb Mt. Everest or eat nothing for a year but raw cabbage, but it was something sort of good that was manageable and realistic.

And keeping it up was basically automatic. I used some technical whizbangery to make it so that every time I posted here on eLearners News, or to the blog on my personal web site, or even made a Facebook status, it would automatically tweet it to whoever was listening. Easy peasy. But suddenly I've lost all interest in participating in Twitter. And the reason is simple, it's their announcement last week that Twitter is willing to censor messages at the behest of governments who want to censor the Internet.

It's not surprising that repressive governments around the world have become wary of social media. The Arab Spring shows that an unfettered Internet can propel popular dissent into regime-changing action. Given the positive role they have played so far, it's exceedingly disappointing that Twitter would voluntarily enable any sort of censorship through their network. In their media release they say, "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression." This is already nonsense. "Countries" do not have ideas, individuals do, and in any society the ideas supported by different individuals will vary greatly. It's freedom of speech that allows those disagreements out in the open, where they can be discussed, and where people can learn from one another, or at least to better tolerate their differences.

Twitter then says, "Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally." This is simply false. A better option is to operate their service from a jurisdiction that doesn't hinder the fundamental human right to freedom of speech, and to tell foreign governments that want to infringe on that right — well, let's just say the phrase ends with "...and the horse you rode in on."

Perhaps this sounds strange coming from someone who's written strongly in favor of a free market. Yes, Twitter is a private company the leaders of which should be able to be as cowardly and venal as they wish. But part of the market process is pressure from consumers on companies to behave in socially acceptable ways. And part of being an individual with values is to avoid supporting those organizations whose leaders' values are directly contrary to one's own. And as as a response to this decision on their part, I am deleting my Twitter account, and urging those who are concerned about what sort of future the Internet will have to do the same.

I realize that caring this much about something like Twitter may sound like going a bit off the deep end. But these days it's clear that the Internet as a platform for free expression is under assault by many different forces. Large media corporations who want to censor others' web sites without due process may have been dealt a setback by the unprecedented recent protests against SOPA, but make no mistake, the odious proposals in that legislation will be back in one form or another before long. And Europeans are currently fighting against the ratification of a treaty called ACTA that would have many of the same chilling effects on Internet freedom that have already been enacted or proposed in the U.S. Those in India are facing the prospect of new Internet censorship by the government there. The list is far too long.

What this means is that we live in a world in which corporate executives pressure government policy makers to abridge freedom for their own bottom line, and government censors pressure corporate decision makers to enable the repression that they believe will keep them in power. Neither group has individual freedoms on their agenda, and it is up to individuals to stand up and resist these negative influences. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are in a battle for the heart and soul of the Internet, and that the outcome will determine whether the twenty-first century will be locked down and controlled by the powerful for their own interests, or whether this can still be an era of openness, tolerance, and free expression for all.

This month Wikipedia for better and Twitter for worse have chosen which side of this new digital freedom divide they are on. Now it's our turn as individuals to decide whether to stand up for Internet freedom, or to sit down and capitulate to the diminished future that those who seek to rule us all would have us accept.

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