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How much should we trust our new information overlords?

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So much is possible with the digital tools we have today: Google (s goog) provides information from billions of sources instantly; Facebook lets us stay in touch with friends around the globe; and Twitter allows anyone to broadcast their thoughts wherever they are. But with all this freedom comes a tradeoff, as Twitter’s censorship news reinforced for many this week. In each case, we are essentially at the mercy of the company whose network we are using (and being used by). If Google doesn’t like your name, it can block you; if Facebook doesn’t like your status, it can delete it; and if Twitter gets a takedown request for your message, it will disappear. Our freedom of speech relies on these new information gatekeepers.

On Thursday, Twitter announced it now has the ability to censor individual tweets within certain countries. Although the company made a point of stressing it will only do this in extreme cases, where it is required to do so by law — in Germany, for example, where promoting Nazi principles is a crime — the news produced a wave of criticism from users and Twitter critics about how the information network was “committing social suicide” and caving in to dictators and authoritarian governments. Although Twitter said it would be as transparent as possible, and it appears to be possible to work around the blocking of tweets, the impact of the news was still negative for many.

Some wondered whether the move was connected to the investment by Saudi billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, while others have been muttering conspiracy theories about Twitter censoring the #Occupy hashtag from its trending topics (which the company has repeatedly denied doing). For every balanced perspective from an observer like Jillian York at the Electronic Frontier Foundation or sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who argued that the policy was positive, there is a rant from someone about how Twitter has failed to uphold its promise as a bastion of free speech. Even high-profile Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei said “if Twitter starts censoring, I’ll stop tweeting.”

Trust is the currency in our relationship with networks

Google has been riding the slippery slope of user trust recently as well, after criticism that its new personalized search features are an attempt to use its market power to promote its own Google+ social network — something that not only irritated competitors like Twitter and Facebook, but made some (including me) question whether the search giant had turned its back on the promise it made to users in 2004 to provide objective search results. The outcry over the changes then spilled over onto Google’s new privacy policy, which drew fire from privacy advocates and users despite the fact that little had changed.

The common thread in both of these incidents is trust, and the perception on the part of some users — and government regulators as well, in Google’s case — that Google and Twitter are both losing some of what made them unique. In Google’s case, an objectivity or purity in its results, and in Twitter’s case, a sense of freedom and openness (rightly or wrongly) about the network and users’ ability to publish whatever and wherever they wish. Twitter’s changes seemed especially disappointing to some because of how powerful that freedom was during the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.

Facebook may not have touched off any storms this week on the trust front, but it is an old hand at disappointing users, whether it’s by changing privacy settings without telling them, tracking users even when they aren’t logged in or removing content in what some allege is an attempt at censorship of certain topics. Google and Facebook have also irritated users by requiring the use of real names, which critics argue benefits the companies and their attempts to serve advertisers more than it does users.

Principles are important, but these are businesses too

These are businesses with corporate interests, not triumphant defenders of free speech — and they each provide the bulk of their services for free, and make money by selling their users’ attention to advertisers. General counsel Alex Macgillivray says Twitter is committed to being “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and the company says it would never use its new powers to block tweets during an event like the Arab Spring, or prevent dissidents in Iran or China from using it to further their cause. But how do we know this for sure? We don’t.

The standard response when someone criticizes Google’s privacy policy or Twitter’s new tactics or Facebook’s changes is “Don’t use them.” But what’s the alternative? Google isn’t just a search engine, but a giant email provider, and has a host of other services people need to do their jobs. Facebook and Twitter are tools that hundreds of millions of people use daily to connect and share with their friends and family — which is why “open source” alternatives such as Diaspora and have failed to gain much traction.

Dave Winer and other open-network advocates have repeatedly made the point that relying on a single corporation, or even several of them, for access to such important tools of communication is a huge risk. But what choice do we have? We either have to try harder to find more open alternatives, or we have to trust that Google and Twitter and Facebook are looking out for our best interests — and when they don’t, we have to make it clear that they are failing, and hold them to account.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Richard Engel, NBC

20 Responses to “How much should we trust our new information overlords?”

  1. Kate Towsey

    What we tend to forget is that the tools these corporations (Facebook, Twitter, Google et al) provide us with are for ‘free’ but, as it often said, nothing comes for nothing. I’m all for fighting to make sure that these companies respect privacy and free speech (and that we can keep enjoying these services as we have been) but I do also realise that they need to pay the bills – how else are they going to do it but for selling our data? It’s the only thing we give them. And, if none of us want to pay for their services, and they go about upsetting governments around the world by supporting anti-social behaviour, even if it’s positively ‘anti-social’ (it’s all the mind of the perceiver as to which is which), then how are they going to survive? I’m not sure that the moral (but not financial) support of the masses and the sales of our data alone will do it.

  2. I find it a little surprising that when Matt says there are few alternatives he mentions Google. Worse, he acts like the’re are no oblternatives. As someone who’s career depends on me finding information scattered in odd pockets of the net, I can tell you Bing/Yahoo is so similar in quality to Google, that I’ll do some searches on both because one will have what I need and the other won’t (with the same search.) Obviously we can get mail, maps, etc. from other sources too. Google is quite replacable.

    On another note, Facebook and twitter were so effective in the Arab Spring and Egypt because they were new enough that the establishment hadn’t learned to censor or block them well and technologies for data transfer allowed data in and out of countries without relying solely on standard fiberoptic pipes. Its new methods of information transfer that were important, not specific products.

  3. Fantastic title!

    Many defenders of Twitter’s announcement have jumped on board without the facts, just as quickly accusing naysayers of being ‘misguided’, even citing the move as being ‘good for activists’. Most arguments rely too heavily on trusting the company to share censorship requests on Chilling Effects, and fail to discuss its lack of complete transparency on the details of their new (?) practices, or the slippery slope it presents.

    Questioning censorship practices is important and necessary, as has been echoed across the world. The news is troubling to say the least — and you’re right — begs the question of trust.

  4. Marc Love

    I think it’s really unfair to compare Twitter’s censorship compliance to Facebook’s removal of status updates they don’t like or Google’s blocking you if they don’t like your name. Twitter’s actions are an act of compliance with a law. Google and Facebook’s actions are an act of the company trying to control their community.

    Twitter, when forced to censor, will be leaving placeholders to let the world know that their government is engaging in censorship. It’s an act of protest on their part, by making sure people know when it’s happened. Like “hey, citizens of Germany, the UK, Canada…did you know your government’s censoring your speech? maybe you want to do something about that?” Twitter’s other option is to ignore the laws of those countries, close any offices they have any those countries, and risk being completely blocked by those countries. In effect, 100% censorship rather than 0.0000000000001% censorship. Twitter has been proven an effective activist communication tool. I’d rather have Twitter in those countries and make it available to activists to correct their governments’ anti-free-speech laws rather than not have Twitter there at all.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marc — I agree they are different, but my point is that all three fundamentally control what we say and when and where we say it, and at the end of the day all we have is our trust in them to do the right thing.

      • Marc Love

        Point well taken. That’s very true and I agree with you 100%.

        Unfortunately, it’s unlikely any non-corporate solution will replace Facebook or Twitter until they self destruct in some way, leaving open the window for an open protocol. Their most valuable asset is their massive user networks, which insulate them from disruption.

        Google’s most valuable asset is their technology, which I think is easier to disrupt and one of the main reasons they’re trying to develop their own interconnected user network.

      • “Their most valuable asset is their massive user networks, which insulate them from disruption.”

        Yes. And that’s exactly why a “non-corporate solution” and “an open protocol” must replace them! Actually, these solutions might be the only things that can replace them!

        And if there is something that can replace them with a corporate solution, then what have we gained? Then we’ve just changed from one overlord to another.

        I truly do believe that an open protocol can win over these overlords, because it can use the network effect, and the inovation of small companies and idealists, against the big networks.

        I’ve laid out my thoughts and arguments on why this is the case here, hope you’ll read it:

    • Listen guys. YOU should thank your government which is spreading such shit ever since it exists. The US is the biggest thread to the entire planet, messing up economies, creating war after war, telling other nations what to do. The US and their citizins are the rootcause of ALL this shit. And why the citizins? Because after people like Bush, the same level of stupidity is accepted. I dream of a world without the United States. Thats my personal opinion so fuck you all!

      Oh, and if you agree with thw above, but are against all this shit as well: sorry, this message was not personal ment for you.

  5. friendcake

    Borge Forteller’s blog post on the Federated Web lays out the task at hand. An open network ecosystem is the only way. Developers can profit off of whatever apps they want to build on top of the network layer that enrich the user experience, but we need the base brick and mortar to be free and open. What else can we do except build this type of infrastructure or submit to THE BIG 3. Would be sad to see the internet to turn into network television all over again…

  6. This from Jillian York: “Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. Google lays out its orders in its Transparency Report. Other companies are less forthright. In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor). And if they have “boots on the ground”, so to speak, in the country in question? No choice.”

      • BlueCollarCritic

        The internet is the last true open, free and most importantly indiscreminate info source. Thanks to it you don;t have to be a billion dollar network to reach people. Regardless of whather you agre with his personal stance or not DRUDGE is proof that the individual can buck the system and win. If the people as a whole continue to act like sheeple, buying whatever excuse the government and big bussiness uses to curtao speech then we deserve to fall back into the dark ages when freedom and liberty were imaginary.