One danger of mass internet communication being channeled through private companies – like Facebook – is the possibility that our communications can be severely curtailed, especially when we try to organize. Consider public protests: How easily could they be labeled as acts of terrorism by those with the ability to cut us off from communicating with each other? Especially in an era where police have become increasingly militarized and people have become accustomed to using corporate-owned online environments with the expectation of having free speech or privacy protection rights when we do, this possibility becomes disturbingly real.
In actuality, we have no such rights on social media platforms. In fact, I’ve not only witnessed Facebook censor people’s communications, it happened to me. Free Press’ Timothy Karr explains why trying to organize via private online services subjects us to much more control than we think it does:
“Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall, writes Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. “It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech.”
The same can be said for Facebook, Twitter and most every other application protesters and journalists use. Zuckerman compares social media executives to “benevolent despots” who use corporate terms of service – not First Amendment principles – to govern their decision-making about content.
To be more accountable and transparent to users, these platforms must allow a full public view of every decision to block content. And these sites should invite feedback from users as a check against abuses.
Emerging partnerships between ISPs, social media companies and law enforcement has lead to communications being censored, to journalists being jailed and it can lead to internet and mobile phone access being blacked out at a moment’s notice. Recent incidents in other countries and conference workshops held here to discuss what police-social media partnerships might look like are concrete proof that this could soon be reality in the United States too. PrivacySOS reports,
Independent journalist Kenneth Lipp attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference this week in Philly. Among the disturbing things he learned there is that Facebook is apparently teaming up with the Chicago Police Department to block people from posting to the social media website. More disturbing still is that this was disclosed in the context of a panel on law enforcement’s response to “mass gatherings spurred by social media.”
In his article Karr writes,
The Arab Spring and other protest movements have evolved into a digital game of cat and mouse: Online activists and new media journalists devise ingenious new ways to get around firewalls to connect with others and report from the streets while repressive regimes deploy new technologies to turn the Web into a surveillance and censorship machine.
Today, when asked whether the Internet has been a force for good or evil, media scholar Zeynep Tufekci likes to answer “Yes.”
In other words, it’s both the best of times and the worst of times for the free speech rights the network is supposed to support.
Amen, Mr. Karr.