Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.
When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content. Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along? Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”
I am surprised I missed this as the time: Tweets from Tahrir. Its a compilation of tweets from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings, edited by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns. During the protests I suggested that the protestors in ‘the world’s biggest think-tank’ publish their hopes for the future of Egypt and that new technologies could help them do it very quickly. Idle and Nunns appear to have got this precise project published within a month. This book obviously owes something to James Bridle’s TweetBook. It is also a companion to books like We Are Iran and Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution, two collections drawn from blogs and activists, and supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme.
I am sure readers will be aware of the long-running global discussion about the role social media can play in revolutions. Clearly, Facebook and Twitter can catalyse opposition to authoritarian regimes, and spread news of protests and government oppression between citizens, and to the world at large. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s heavy handed response to online opposition may actually have quickened his fall. He and his cronies felt they had no option but to ‘switch off’ the Internet, depriving the entire country of proper connectivity. This was an obvious ploy which only signalled the regime’s desperation. The protesters in Tahrir Square were emboldened. In the future, however, oppressive governments may become more subtle and savvy in their approach to censorship. In Episodes #81 and #82 of the Rebooting the News podcast, Dave Winer and Jay Rosen discuss this problem at length. Winer explained out that Twitter and Facebook could be nixed by regimes. An Internet ‘kill switch’ is bad for governments, because it signals to the people that the protests are working. Instead, oppressive governments will try to develop tools which simply filter out content which undermines their agenda, yet maintains the appearance of normalcy. The Chinese regime does this very well, and managed to selectively filter out references to Egypt for Internet users inside China. Having witnessed the sobering examples of Mubarak and Ben Ali, other dictators will begin to commission tools to achieve this. Corporations (which, we must remind ourselves, include Twitter and Facebook) will be happy to do this, in exchange for access to the emerging markets these countries represent. Winer expands on this idea on his blog, Scripting.com:
They can do the same with Facebook that they do with Assange. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff you can do at a firewall to make one site appear to be having technical problems. Real technical problems (but fake ones nonetheless). There are consultants calling on generals all over the world, right now, selling them wonderful Internet dashboards that selectively and randomly make sites appear to have problems of their own, not caused by the government. Anticipating this, we have to create communication networks on the Internet that require that the whole Internet be cut off in order for them to be cut off. The reason is simple. The people who are being manipulated will know they’re being manipulated. In a centralized social space, there could easily be doubt. I know this is a complicated idea, but the intellects are at work, I promise you. They are smart, we have to be smart too. It’s important that people learn to manage their own infrastructure. It’s going to happen, we can do it. We can make servers much easier to set up and maintain, and do more stuff that’s meaningful to people like the people in Egypt fighting for freedom. By spreading out we’re harder to stop.
This strikes me as being one of the most important ideas for freedom of expression right now, and a crucial lesson from the Egyptian uprising.