Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?

jigsaw

Should Google and others influence our online behaviours? (Image c/o Cindee Snider Re on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, the results of a pilot project run by Jigsaw (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – formerly Google) to send those seeking information on ISIS towards counter-propaganda anti-ISIS materials on YouTube were revealed. Over the course of the two month program, according to Wired, 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Furthermore, “searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign”. The success of the programme has led to plans to relaunch the program focusing on North American extremists, targeting white supremacists as well as potential ISIS recruits.

But the efforts of Jigsaw to police the internet doesn’t begin and end with counter-propaganda designed to stop individuals from being sucked into a violent ideology. According to Wired’s Andy Greenberg:

The New York-based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infrastructure and engineering muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intractable jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”.

Although there are elements of that mission that are to be welcomed, there is much also that is problematic at best and highly unethical at worst.

With regards to the determination to challenge extremist indoctrination, there are very obvious and serious questions that need to be asked here, not least how do we define extremism? Communism and anarchism have, for many decades, been perceived to be “extremist ideologies”, should anyone investigating such ideologies also be exposed to counter-propaganda? Is it Google/Jigsaw who determine whether such ideologies are “extremist”? And, if so, how “neutral” can we expect them to be about ideologies that would see corporations such as themselves broken up and no longer permitted to operate in the ways in which they currently operate? We know that such tech companies are susceptible to state pressure (as with Google, so it is also with Yahoo! and others).

Of course, this is nothing new. Large tech companies are increasingly seeing themselves as a form of global police force that acts as a form of privatised global state department. Much as I value the defence that Apple put up when the FBI demanded access to the infamous San Bernardino phone, is it really appropriate that they refused to do so? My gut instinct is to say, in this particular example, yes (I should add I am an iPhone user so I am somewhat seeing it through the prism of the protection of my communications etc). But should a large multinational corporation get to pick and choose which laws it abides by? If an individual in a liberal Western democracy refused to accede to a request by the security services, you can be sure that both sides wouldn’t be arguing across the media. They’d be arguing through the bars of a jail cell.

This tech company as global internet police force has also been exposed by the revelations that Facebook has been working closely with the Israeli government to “monitor posts that incite violence”. Needless to say, in the context of the long and complicated history of the region, such work opens a whole series of questions about the consequence of such a partnership, particularly given Israel’s questionable attitude towards Arab-Israeli comments on social media. As Freedom House’s 2015 report on Israel notes:

In July 2014, a professor at Bar-Ilan University was publicly rebuked by his dean for sending an e-mail to his students expressing sympathy for victims on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a rebuke which drew objections from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Similarly during the conflict, students at some universities, particularly Arab students, were reportedly subjected to monitoring and sanctions for social-media comments that were deemed offensive or extremist.

One can’t help but wonder whether Facebook will actually make such action significantly easier.

Should multi-national corporations either act as independent arms of the state, policing the internet and tackling censorship or directing individuals to counter-propaganda at will? Aren’t there serious ethical issues at play here when such corporations either act as independent arms of the state, or proxies for the state in which they operate? Are we not effectively making multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple as arbiters of liberty and freedom?

Jigsaw intends to “end censorship within a decade” (Wired, Nov 16). A fine goal. But it is also about to launch Conversation AI which intends to “selectively silence” voices to protect the speech of others. Squaring the circle of ending censorship and “selectively silencing” voices is a question for the engineers at Jigsaw. However, the question for all of us must surely be to what extent are we prepared to permit large multi-national corporations to make ethical judgements on behalf of all of us? Should issuing counter-propaganda and tackling abuses of free speech be considered a social good when it is at the whim of a corporation or programs using algorithms created by individuals that work for such corporations? Ultimately, do we really need or should we even permit a (as Greenberg describes it) “Digital Justice League”? Or should corporations stay out of complex ethical issues? It seems to me that such corporations should be responsive to our needs and requests (eg harassment reports on social media) rather than deciding for us. By all means, tackle racism, harassment, misogyny and hatred, but it should be on our terms, not theirs.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


 

What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


 

Banning offensive materials in public libraries

Over the Easter week-end, a petition emerged calling for The Sun newspaper to be removed from Islington Council’s public libraries. The petition states:

“We would like public libraries to replace the Sun newspaper with a publication that does not promote misogynistic images of women or promote and eroticise violent crimes against women. This is not censorship, councils choose which publications they buy based on the needs of the local community, libraries choose not to buy The Daily Star or The Daily Sport which were cited along with The Sun in the Leveson enquiry as “relentlessly objectifying women” and “Portraying them as a sum of sexualised body parts” and we believe they should choose not to buy The Sun for the same reasons.”

It goes on to list the ways in which the availability of the newspaper in the council’s libraries contravenes its own policies with regards to discrimination and in terms of making available sexist materials. At the time of writing it had received 495 signatures and seems to be garnering some support on Twitter.

I have no time for The Sun (or indeed any of the newspapers in the Murdoch stable). It is a cynical, exploitative newspaper that, without a trace of irony, expresses a superficial sense of patriotism whilst simultaneously expressing beliefs that are alien to our history and culture (‘our’ being the people, they certainly represent beliefs that reflect the history and culture of the establishment). And, of course, it promotes views that are xenophobic, misogynistic and discriminatory.  Consequently, I sympathise with the motivations behind the petition, but I find it troublesome on any number of levels.

I do not believe that any lawful material should be banned from public libraries, no matter how abhorrent I may think it is. Because once we let that genie out of that bottle there is no telling where it will end. Removing copies of The Sun because it is misogynistic may result in certain groups seeking the removal of other books or newspapers that promote a viewpoint that an individual or group may find abhorrent (indeed, a quick search online finds that there are those who would seek to remove The Koran from library shelves). Once a concession is made to one group, it would be increasingly difficult to fend off calls from other pressure groups to remove materials. Libraries should be concerned with free access to all information, regardless of its value (which is a subjective concept at any rate), not providing access to materials according to the demands of individual pressure groups. Which leads me to another, wider concern about the impact of such library campaigns.

We’re currently witnessing a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’ – libraries that local communities are being forced to provide in response to threats of closure.  They are often delivered by those without previous experience of running a library and, in many cases, without substantial local authority oversight. One of the many concerns about the spread of these types of library services is how the kind of campaigns mounted against The Sun will be handled. Will those from the local community running such libraries bow to vociferous pressure from within their local community to remove materials that the minority might value? Or will they stand firm and refuse to remove materials from library shelves simply because sections of the community demand it? I’m not convinced that they will resist.

The size of a local authority is both a blessing and a curse. In such circumstances, its size can be an advantage in resisting such efforts. For a small library in a local community, run by the local community facing demands from within the community to remove certain materials, I’m not sure they will be so resilient. “Faceless bureaucrats” have a distinct advantage over volunteers in a “community library” – they are faceless. They can, by and large, brush off any local campaigns. Well known figures within the community who help deliver library services are not so fortunate. As I told The Guardian back in 2012 with respect to libraries removing books from shelves due to external pressures:

“…the issue of censorship and banned books are very strong arguments for a professionally run service. If community libraries are to spread, it is very likely that stories of censorship and withdrawn books will increase.”

Of course, those who believe that The Sun should be removed from public libraries have every right to organise, petition and argue their case. What concerns me is that as libraries run by volunteers becomes the norm, such campaigns will become ever more widespread and a growing problem for the public library service in the UK. It is only a matter of time, as such libraries become more prevalent, that one such campaign will be successful. In the fight against injustice and discrimination, we should be careful what we wish for.

Is the neutrality of the internet under threat in Europe?

It certainly seems that way following the vote yesterday by the European Parliament’s Industry Committee. Jim Killock of The Open Rights Group (ORG) argued that:

‘By allowing ISPs to charge more for “specialised services”, the Regulation would enable telecoms and other companies to buy their way to a faster internet at the expense of individuals, start-ups and small businesses. This threatens the openness and freedom of the internet.’

Effectively, a two-tier internet would ensue, where the big players dominate and control the flow of information online. As Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands (a country which enshrined net neutrality in law in 2012) explains:

“Without legal guarantees for net neutrality internet service providers were able to throttle competitors. And existing online services can make deals to offer faster services at a higher price. This could push players without deep pockets, such as start-ups, hospitals or universities, out of the market.”

Of course, the increased corporatisation of the internet was always likely. The internet is (still) too wild and free a place for corporates and they see greater influence over the way information is delivered as necessary to protect their interests and drive profits.

As is to be expected, the legislation proposed is also rather loose with its wording (what legislation related to technology isn’t?) which raises concerns about the potential for increased internet censorship:

Also of concern are proposals that would allow “reasonable traffic management measures” to “prevent or impede serious crime”. On these, Killock added:

‘It is unclear what “reasonable traffic management measures” are but potentially they could allow ISPs to block or remove content without any judicial oversight. Decisions about what the public can and can’t see online should not be made by commercial organisations and without any legal basis.’

The full European Parliament will vote on this Regulation will take place on 3rd April. It’s still not too late to take action against the proposals. A good place to start is the Save the Internet campaign. And if you want to find out more about net neutrality and what it means, you could do worse than watch the short video below.

On Radical Library Camp and my session pitch

Poster commenting on the media coverage of the Occupy movement. (Image c/o freestylee on Flickr.)

You may have seen some reference to a Radical Library Camp on Twitter recently. Well, I hope you have otherwise we’ve not been doing a good job of making you aware of it! Seeing as I have pitched a session on the wiki, I thought it would be good to take an opportunity to explain a bit more about my pitch, as well as give a little background and personal perspective on the idea of a ‘Radical Library Camp’. First, I should probably explain how I see the word ‘radical’ in the context of this Camp.

I think, probably, the word ‘radical’ causes some problems for librarians and information professionals. Is what we do ‘radical’? If not, what exactly would make us so? Can a librarian ever truly be radical? And is the word ‘radical’ just a synonym for ‘far-left’? In some respects, I guess the term ‘radical’ is a synonym for the radical left, but I prefer to think of it in somewhat broader terms (albeit terms that some might term as ‘radical left’ regardless).

I was asked this question fairly recently, “what do you mean by ‘radical’?”, which prompted a lot of reflection on my part and a lot of searching to try to find the answer I felt comfortable with. Lucky for me, a quick scan through my Chomsky Library (everyone should have one!) provided an answer that satisfied me in a way that my own ruminations couldn’t quite manage. In Power Systems, a series of published conversations between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, they discuss what it is to be radical:

One of the things you say about yourself, which often stuns people, is that you’re an old-fashioned conservative. What do you mean by that?

For example, I think Magna Carta and the whole legal tradition that grew out of it made some sense. I think the expansion of the moral horizon over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is important. I think there’s nothing wrong with those ideals. A conservative, at least as it used to be understood, is somebody who cares about traditional values. Today those values are regularly being thrown out the window. We should condemn that.

Then why are you seen as a wide-eyed radical?

Because holding on to traditional values is a very radical position. It threatens and undermines power.

And I think that fits with what I view a ‘Radical Library Camp’ to be about (note: this is my personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow collaborators). In other words, it is about focusing on our core, traditional values, values that have, in these neo-liberal times, become ‘radical’ by nature of our changing environment. So, for example, we as a profession traditionally champion the right of everyone, without discrimination, to access information. In these times of increasing commodification of information, adhering to a view that everyone should have access to information has become a somewhat radical position. The mainstream position now is that information has to be paid for. It has to sit behind paywalls on the internet or be subject to a fee before the equipment can be used to access it (see the move towards charging library users to access the internet – resulting in discriminating against those least able to pay).

(Image c/o Stian Eikeland on Flickr.)

It’s not just in terms of charging for access to information, but also the controls placed on the information itself. Whereas once the internet was a place where information was exchanged openly and freely, it is now increasingly becoming a place where the state has to place controls and restrictions, limiting this flow of information. We see that not only in traditionally repressive regimes such as China etc, but also in supposed free societies such as America and the United Kingdom in a multitude of ways (although the latter has a long-standing reputation for secrecy and restrictions on the right to know of its citizens). This is the conservative, dominant position we find ourselves in. What was once an extreme view (access to information unimpeded should be restricted and subject to the ability to pay) has now become mainstream and pervasive whereas the traditional view (information should be made accessible to all) has become ‘radical’ and subversive. So, it is in opposition to this mainstream view that I see the term ‘radical’ being used in this context. It is, in my view, a traditionalist position embracing our core values, at odds with the present neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Why did I get involved in a radical library camp? Well, I tend to believe that there is a bit of a gap in professional conferences and general professional discussion. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion in the way of certain informational issues, issues that touch on our ethical principles, and I know from speaking to many others that I am not alone in feeling this way. I personally believe that there is a need for something a little different, a space to discuss issues such as the marketisation of libraries, the commodification of information, censorship, transparency and a range of other issues that are closely associated with our profession.  The world is increasingly shifting towards a more restrictive, commercial and exclusive environment for the exchange of information. As a profession concerned with access to information, we should confront these issues and, where possible, come up with solutions to not just preserve, but expand the principles of open, accessible and free information exchange. Again, these are all my perspectives on radical library camp and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow organisers (I feel I must emphasise that!).

As for my pitch, well, I’ve written a brief summary of the area I would like to engage with other attendees on. It is basically a natural progression from the session I intended to do at theLondon Library Camp before events got in the way. The idea emerged from the very same book I referred to earlier when quoting Chomsky’s perspective on radicalism. I was intrigued by one particular passage in the book, picking up on a quote by Howard Zinn:

“There is a basic weakness in governments – however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public – because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When these people begin to suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”

(Image c/o Travelin’ Librarian on Flickr.)

What I am particularly interested in here is where librarians and information professionals fit into this equation. The state controls much of the flow of information (and increasingly the corporate sector) which reinforces their power. As a result of their historic position of control, the internet is a serious threat to state power as it provides a space for ideas and information to be exchanged freely and without impediment. However, the state is increasingly seeking to place limits on this communications medium, proposing various censorship laws ostensibly designed to protect the individual but which also impede upon their freedoms. Furthermore, as well as trying to limit the exchange of information, the state is making increased efforts to monitor communications through bodies such as the NSA and GCHQ. The internet is victim to threats of both increased censorship of information, and the growing surveillance of the information we exchange.

It’s not just an issue in terms of accessing information via the internet. Freedom of information laws were long resisted in the UK, often seen as one of the most secretive governments in the western democratic world. Their introduction was described as a mistake by Blair shortly after the legislation was passed. Ever since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, efforts have been made towater it down and restrict its power. Across all aspects of our life, the state (and corporate interests) are seeking to simultaneously limit access to information whilst also harvesting data from our exchanges of information.

Not only am I interested in the control of information and how it is used by those in positions of  power, I am also interested in the other element of Zinn’s quote: obedience. If the state and corporate interests control the flow of information, restricting it and preventing equal access, how do we square that with our professional ethics? Do we accept it? Or do we, in Zinn’s words “withdraw our support”? And if we are to “withdraw our support”, what would this look like? What is our role in opening up information, taking control away from state and corporate interests and making it open, accessible and public? Do we even have a role in challenging the control of information? Or is our role simply to ensure that government and corporate interests maintain control of the information given to the public?

What I am particularly interested in here is the discussion I hope will develop around this. I have no idea of the answers to these questions. I don’t even know if there are answers or whether the questions are even “the right ones”. And whilst this might sound like there’s a structure I wish to adhere to in the discussion, I have no such structure in mind. I am simply interested in taking Zinn’s quote and using that as a starting point for discussion because I believe that who controls information and how it is controlled is one of the great issues facing not only our profession, but society as a whole. Sounds a bit grand, but I hope it will be an interesting discussion.

Twitter – can censorship ever be justified?

The internet was alive with chatter on Friday in response to Twitter’s announcement that it was making a change in the extent to which it restricts content.  The change means that content that violates the laws of an individual state will be blocked.  Given the nature of the average Twitter user (generally opposed to censorship) and the impact the use of Twitter has had in a range ofdespotic regimes across the world, it was not surprising that there was uproar about this announcement. Such was the uproar, there were threats of widespread blackouts as people announced their intentions to boycott the service.  Judging by the volume of tweets, it appears that this didn’t really take hold.

However, as Twitter’s blog explained, things were a little more complicated than they initially appeared:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

In an update it went on to add:

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

Which appears to make the policy a little more understandable.  Indeed, a number of blog posts were subsequently published which argued that not only was the position taken by Twitter reasonable, it was also a victory for defenders of free speech.  As one blog put it:

The alternative would be to see Twitter blocked entirely in countries which consider its content to be a violation of their local laws. If the finger should be pointed at anyone, it isn’t Twitter, but rather the lawmakers that make it possible to censor content in the first place.

So is it really an issue? Should Twitter really be the target of a boycott?

It’s a tricky issue to get right.  Ultimately, the medium should be as lightly managed as possible, ensuring people can tweet freely and share information readily.  As has been seen in a number of cases, the impact of such freedom can have a positive impact upon our society.  But, of course, as with all freedom of speech issues, there are concerns and grey areas that need to be wrestled with.

So how do we resolve such issues?  Surely our viewpoint on censorship ultimately comes down to our own personal moral compass?  Do we believe that censorship is ultimately acceptable if the laws that the tweet breaks are only those we are sympathetic towards?  Would we be more inclined towards censorship if the content was gratuitously offensive to an ethnic minority than if it was content that is adjudged to be libellous to a large corporation?  Both would be in breach of the law, but is one easier than the other to justify?

Personally speaking, I firmly believe in the right to free speech.  I broadly believe that people should not be prosecuted for what they communicate.  But there difficult areas, and I am not really sure I have come to terms with them myself.  I absolutely believe that racist content should be removed.  But I am less sympathetic towards censorship of libellous tweets aimed at large corporations.  And yet both are subject to criminal prosecution.  Perhaps my view on censorship would be best summed up as a necessary evil if it defends the interests of the powerless or the weak, but absolutely avoided if it seeks to defend the interests of the powerful.  It’s not a satisfactory response to freedom of speech issues, but it’s the best I can come up with.

In terms of Twitter, I am not sure that this policy is a wholly bad thing, although it is probably best to see how things play out before rushing to judgement (although is that even a satisfactory response?).  Clearly it ensures that those in repressive regimes actually get access to the technology rather than endure a blanket ban.  It also ensures that tweets are only blocked according to location, so outside of that locality the tweets would be entirely visible – ensuring that in the case of repressive regimes the content still makes it out to the wider world.  This location aspect is certainly superior to some other methods utilised to control content.  As Zeynep Tufekci points out on her excellent post on this issue, Blogger is currently censoring a post on brutality conduced by security forces in Egypt.  This post is currently blocked globally without any indication as to the cause of its removal (unlike the policy that Twitter announced – which will supposedly ensure transparency over removal).  Furthermore, there is a commitment to only block content based on a ‘valid legal order’ which should ensure a degree of protection, providing Twitter doesn’t cave in to spurious government requests for removal.

So, overall I would say that whilst this move is not the most welcome news, I’m not so sure it is quite as regressive as it first appears.  I think the people at Twitter are smart enough to know that if censorship does become a major issue for users they will just move some place else.  It seems to me that they have tried to strike a middle ground ensuring it can protect itself from prosecution (after all, that would lead to the closure of the service for all) and ensure that content is relatively unaffected.  That said, this will need be monitored closely and, if there are attempts to cave into requests by government to censor content without ensuring that valid legal orders are applied, then the strongest possible pressure should be applied to ensure censorship on such grounds is no longer an option.  Time will tell whether this move by Twitter amounts to an attack on free speech or a smart way to defend it.