Twitter allows Iranian protests to continue, free speech questions arise

Twitter is facilitating democracy in Iran! The media is reveling in the idea that the tiny communication technology is calling forth democracy in one prong of the “Axis of Evil,” accomplishing in mere days in Iran what our military failed to accomplish for years next door in Iraq.

These events beg a question some analysts have been asking since the dawn of the so-called new economy, when the internet and digital communications became integrated with the for-profit privately held universe. The question goes something like: How well does our desire for free expression mix with the demands and constraints of business?*

Twitter announced Monday it might have to shut down Iran’s postmodern revolution to make technical upgrades, because, you know, Twitter is a business after all and its managers and tech people had already decided that now was the time.

Concerned user/customers tweeted Twitter to say that now was not the time for upgrades, and Twitter agreed.

‘Our network host had planned this upgrade for tonight,’ founder Biz Stone said yesterday in a message to users. ‘However, our network partners at NTT America recognise the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.’

So the revolution will be Twittered without interruption — by consent of management.

Social media’s power of political persuasion may be coming of age but so are questions about the ethics of tweeting, friending and so on.

In the U.S. election last year, when Facebook groups centered around libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton complained that their pages were being censored, Facebook administrators said that the groups were actually only experiencing technical glitches. Was Facebook, whose management was in the tank for Obama, telling the truth? Maybe. Who knows?

Reporting the story for the Huffington Post, Sara Hebert wrote that many Facebook users were becoming politically active for the first time in their lives and doing so in the post 9-11 world shaped by the secretive and abusive Bush-Cheney Administration.

The fear that Facebook may be biased — another source of hidden control, either as a result of staff interference or software design or alleged or ignored technical difficulties — seems a natural concern and one that should be addressed as a function of the medium.

Hebert advocated a “transparency division,” in effect, for all digital communications services, which would work to bolster confidence. It just makes good business sense, she argued.

In a digital world, the ability for privately owned services that are increasingly the contemporary equivalent of the public communications utilities of the now-distant past — early radio and TV and telephones — should expect wariness and suspicion on the part of users who depend on these technologies to communicate their most private and most political thoughts. To brush off issues of censorship as mere “technical glitches” is dispiriting for being remote and murky — the fertile swampland where fears of censorship grow.

But is depending on management to increase transparency really the best option, the best way to guard our “most private and most political thoughts”?

In a recent post to the IDC listserv — a space where analysts and theorists of all stripes explore our digital reality — IT theorist Nick Knouf considered Twitter.

He presents the conditions of use Twitter imposes on its users:

1. We reserve the right to modify or terminate the service for any reason, without notice at any time.

2. We reserve the right to alter these Terms of Use at any time. If the alterations constitute a material change to the Terms of Use, we will notify you via internet mail according to the preference expressed on your account. What constitutes a “material change” will be determined at our sole discretion, in good faith and using common sense and reasonable judgement.

3. We reserve the right, in accordance with any applicable laws, to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.

4. We may, but have no obligation to, remove Content and accounts containing Content that we determine in our sole discretion are unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene or otherwise objectionable or violates any party’s intellectual property or these Terms of Use.

5. The Twitter service makes it possible to post images and text hosted on Twitter to outside websites. This use is accepted (and even encouraged!). However, pages on other websites which display data hosted on must provide a link back to Twitter.

6. We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.

Is all of that really OK with all of us? Knouf asks. He suggests another kind of “Twitter Revolution” for Americans to undertake and celebrate:

I fail to understand why people continue to valorize a commercial service for these things while perfectly equivalent (in terms of technical functionality) services exist like running Laconica ( So why not make a statement and encourage a move to an alternative service, thus refusing to materially support a provider that claims the right to remove anything it finds “otherwise objectionable” …? There are differences– real ones at that — between services that claim a faux-openness and those that are based on another type of openness that at least allows modification, forking, and … [user] control.

* I wrote a sloppy version of the question and so updated it. It originally appeared as: “Who will guarantee free expression now that we depend on businesses to transmit those expressions?” As Ernest pointed out in comments, with few exceptions, we have long depended on businesses to transmit our expressions.

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |

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