Human Rights / Social Networking

Twitter – are we ever really “as free as a bird”?

I have previously touched upon the issue of freedom of expression and Twitter in an article about the Hamza Kashgari case. In brief, Kashgari generated widespread anger and the desire of many for his execution after publishing 3 tweets about an imagined meeting with the Prophet Muhammad, addressing him as human, as an equal.

Recently, it seems appropriate to further explore the issue of free speech and Twitter, especially in light of recent comments made on the Internet by Matthew Woods concering April Jones and Madeleine McCann. These actions have led him to be sent for 12 weeks to a young offenders’ institution.

Perhaps the highest profile case is still the “Twitter joke trial”, when 28-year-old Paul Chambers was found guilty of sending a “menacing” tweet for threatening to “blow up” Robin Hood airport after it was closed due to adverse weather conditions. That conviction was quashed in the high court, but only after a prolonged legal battle in which he was supported by a number of celebrities.

These are all very different cases, but each provoked controversy and/or disgust amongst different communities. We live in a world with multiple cultures, contexts and standards. What is appropriate in one corner of the globe is extremely vulgar in another. So how do we know what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to something so universal as the internet?

The outcome of the Paul Chambers case was that if any such comment could be brushed aside as a silly joke or a joke in bad taste by those who receive or may be expected to receive the message, then it would be a contradiction in terms to describe it as a message of a menacing character.

Here, emphasis is made upon those who will/may receive the message, and this seems to be at the core of the problem of free speech on the internet. Benjamin Ward writes in an article how Britain has “lost its way” when it comes to freedom of expression on the world wide web, despite upholding free speech traditions such as Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. This is most likely in part due to the outdated laws regulating what can and cannot be said on the internet. They are what led to the prosecution of Woods and a man who posted comments about dead soldiers on his Facebook page. The Communications Act 2003 was passed when social media was just emerging and Twitter and Facebook didn’t even exist.

Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s chief lawyer is one of those most definitely in favour of promoting free speech through the company. “We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice. We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.” But his intentions may not be all that honourable, but purely for the benefit of the company. This became apparent when Twitter briefly suspended British journalist, Guy Adams, who had used his feed to repeatedly criticize the handling of Olympics coverage by NBC, a corporate partner of Twitter. Silencing Mr. Adams led to public outrage (on Twitter, naturally).

This week, Twitter has blocked access to a neo-Nazi account at the request of the German government. The tweets will no longer be visible to users in Germany although the rest of the world will be able to view them. This is the first time the company’s local censorship policy, launched in January of this year, has been enforced.

What is important to question is what message is being sent by censoring (or not censoring) certain material? If too much is censored, what does this say about our liberties? Would we be supporting extreme measures like China’s firewall? It is clear that legislation concerning the issue needs to be updated but also that the UK decides on its stance on the issue. Can a balance be found between protecting freedom of expression and protecting those who may be harmed by freedom of expression? After all, if it can be said on the street, why not the internet? The UK is considered by many to be a model of democracy with its advocacy of free speech, but how will this change now that so many are being prosecuted for speaking their minds? In my mind, our country should consider paving the way for freedom of expression on the internet, just as it did all those years ago for freedom of expression on the street.

As first seen on Protocol Magazine at http://protocol-magazine.com/2012/10/23/twitter-really-as-free-as-a-bird/

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