I took the liberty of making a new meme: "Censorship Sandworm". http://memegenerator.net/Censorship-Sandworm

“I must rule with eye and claw — as the hawk among lesser birds.”

-Duke Leo Atreides in Book 1: Dune

Over a week ago, Twitter announced a new censorship policy, stating that it would comply with any “valid and applicable legal request” to take down tweets. The announcement came just as we were still digesting Google’s unified privacy policy and were still debating the (now confirmed) rumors that Facebook was releasing an IPO. Twitter has since been applauded, denounced, and dissected by a variety of scholars, media critics, and business leaders. In this post I will give a brief summary of the controversy, briefly weigh in with a commentary of my own, and conclude with a discussion of what all this means for theorizing online social activity.

The Controversy

Twitter’s new policy has been discussed by a variety of sources, but two authors -Zeynep Tufekci and BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza- do an excellent job of synthesizing the major threads of the debate. Both do such an excellent job that I will, for this section, relegate myself to curator of quotes. If you have read both posts (here and here), then skip to the next section “Understanding Processes and the Process of Understanding.”

Twitter is a private company, not a social movement:

Tufekci-

Twitter can’t fight all free speech battles by itself; and it can’t change laws or governments around the world, nor can it ignore issues of jurisdiction. In particular, if faced with a court order that requires Twitter to identify dissidents in a country where torture or severe repression is in place…

Beschizza-

Twitter’s paid its dues; who doubts that it is the most trustworthy major social network? It’s earned the benefit of the doubt regarding its intentions. It’s unfair that people have accused Twitter of literally betraying activists, when it has done no such thing.

But the most common refrain I hear from Twitter’s defenders is that if you ever expected ethics from a for-profit company, you’ve earned your disappointment. Such naked cynicism from its own supporters can hardly warm hearts at a company that once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”

 Twitter is engaging in a new and innovative harm reduction strategy, but it is unclear how or if it will work:

Tufekci-

Twitter spokespeople have repeatedly said they will only block content in [sic] “In the face of a valid and applicable legal order.” This is a good standard and I don’t think any company can get around this in jurisdictions where they have physical presence; nor is it clear that they should. Of course, we all need to be watching carefully to ensure that they do so and not just cooperate with governments based on “requests.”

Beschizza-

Twitter anticipates being able to censor only to local readers, and appears to anticipate easy circumvention loopholes. But how can it pick which court orders it will obey? If local courts demand more oppressive local measures and assert global jurisdiction over Twitter’s operations, Twitter could have to choose between obedience, local staffers’ freedom or jobs, or the indiscriminate blocking that all this is supposed to avoid.

[...]

More likely, English courts are in the habit of issuing “superinjunctions” to ban censored media from even disclosing the fact that they’ve been censored—given its pledge to publish, Twitter may have to choose between its commitment to transparency and avoiding contempt of court.

Keeping an open and transparent list of censored tweets behaves differently than just removing the tweet altogether:

Tufekci-

I suspect this policy will cause some governments to continue to block Twitter on the whole because it doesn’t make it easy for governments to block content (they have to at least follow some level of procedure) and it creates a “Streisand effect” on censored tweets.

Beschizza-

It’s understandable why foreign activists hate Twitter’s new policy: they’re the ones who would be silenced by it in their own countries. But that plain fact blurs under our endless capacity for abstraction, in which their political awareness morphs into a demented reflection of our own.

[...]

This view—that unless a censor can eradicate a message worldwide, it isn’t really censorship—strikes me as the point where the danger of Twitter’s compromise becomes most apparent. It inoculates our concern for the activist who has been silenced (and for the intended audience who cannot hear him) with our own pointless knowledge of his and their suffering.

The censoring is not very robust. A user can change their country settings or use a proxy network to get censored tweets.

Tufekci-

 The policy is not made hard to circumvent. Twitter helpfully included instructions on how to change your country (“manually override” the country setting which is determined by IP). I don’t know about you, but does this sound like Twitter is caving? Also, obviously, Tor users and proxy users will be able to access the content fairly easily.

Understanding Processes and the Process of Understanding

“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.” The First Law of Mentat, quoted by Paul Atreides to Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

Arrakis, as depicted in David Lynch's Dune (1984)

Last Wednesday, on this blog, P.J. Rey claimed (rather provocatively): “There is no ‘cyberspace.’” In his post he gave us the etemology of the word “cyberspace”. It was coined by the cyberpunk author William Gibson as a “consensual hallucination” that gave visual metaphors to abstract concepts and ideas. P.J. rightly concludes that such a depiction does not accurately reflect how we use the Internet today. Online activity effects all of us, whether we use the internet or not. The Arab Spring, Occupy protests, and Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign are evidence of the nonconsensual nature of the web. It is not a hallucination for the same reason. As P.J. says, “Causality is bi-directional. We are all part of the same human-computer system.” What happens online, does not stay online. I contend, however, that we are experiencing a kind of consensual hallucination, but of a totally different sort. Our consensual hallucination treats the real and material needs and concerns of individuals as rights and ideals that can be  taken out of their context and abstracted into otherworldly business platitudes. The  inventors and innovators of technology embed within their creations, the politics of their own worldview. Or, as philosopher and social theorist Langdon Winner put it: “artifacts have politics.”

The titans of the information economy (e.g. Zuckerberg, Costolo, Schmidt, Jobs) are usually of a Western persuasion. Their privileged lives are reflected in their creations. If those creations are intangible, like a use policy, the CEOs start sounding more like religious leaders than software developers. In the original 2011 post “The Tweets Must Flow” Twitter’s creator, Biz Stone and General Counsel (council?)  Alex Macgillvray wrote:

The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day. From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits.

Western ethics regarding freedom of expression are just as much a part of Twitter as the REST architecture, the physical servers it runs on, and the HTML that codes the web page. Twitter’s new censorship process is simultaneously a business problem, a technical issue, and an ethical conundrum. Figuring out where one begins and the other ends is nearly impossible. When this array of code and ethics reaches the borders of (for example) Egypt, the employees of Twitter are faced with a trifecta of sociotechnical problems that must be solved to the varying satisfaction and dissatisfaction of investors (which includes a Saudi Prince) , American lawmakers, Egyptian authorities, and users.

When companies like Twitter (although this applies to Facebook, Google, and many others) do substantial business in other nations, they must engage in a process of resistance and accommodation quite similar to that of a scientist. This process, as explained by Andrew Pickering, entails working to towards a certain end (maintaining a business presence in Egypt), by way of resisting obstacles and accommodating those that you cannot. This can take the form of putting your foreign employees in harms way, caving to the demands of powerful regimes, protecting your brand by avoiding controversy altogether, or embracing your role as a potential platform for grassroots democracy. In the end, any privacy policy is going to say something about how the calculus of ethics and profitable business. Sometimes those two things share a similar goal, other times they diverge. Sometimes achieving both means letting a Syrian activist go to jail, overthrowing the Mubarak’s government, or creating certified user accounts for Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen. Yes, Twitter is a business looking for profit, but the nature of the product means mangling HTML, ethics, and monetization schemes.

The Neoliberalization of the Public Realm

“We are generalists. You can’t draw neat lines around planet-wide problems. Planetology is a cut-and-fit science.”

-Pardot Kynes

Today, when we socialize online, we are almost always using privately owned services. But the prevalence and prominence of private space for the public good is nothing new and is not, by its very nature, a threat to free speech. Occupy Wall Street was able to hold out in Zuccotti park for as long as they did, thanks to a loophole in regulating public land held by private individuals. Some of the greatest physical, offline forums for social action have been created by private businesses looking to establish themselves as the hosts to public life. At the same time, a privately owned mall can stifle free speech just as easily as a repressive government regime. That is why I want to separate out a specific process that is more accurately described as neoliberalization. 

From David Harvey’s “A Brief History of Neoliberalism”,

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political eco- nomic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.

[...]

The process of neoliberalization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers (even challenging traditional forms of state sover- eignty) but also of divisions of labour, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, repro- ductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart. In so far as neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substi- tuting for all previously held ethical beliefs’, it emphasizes the significance of contractual relations in the marketplace.

Rather than talk about the difference between private and public, we should be talking about private ownership situated within a strong (and even violent) state institutional framework. The censorship policy that Twitter has developed has less to do about protecting free speech, and more to do with creating a neoliberal framework, through which, the company can most effectively monetize social activity while at the same time, establishing an ethic of speech practices that guide human action. Intention and causation get muddy here. Is this economic activity driven by a desire to see free speech enacted across the globe? Or are Western companies happy to help break the backs of repressive regimes because it is good for business? Or is it a mangle of both? Our cyborg religion of monetized free speech is colonizing repressive nation-states and I doubt anyone knows exactly what kind of world these silicon messiahs have in store for us.

David leads a small following through a virtual desert on twitter! @da_banks

Pitch-perfect Dune quotes care of Wikiquotes