In the last few months, Twitter more than any other social media service has been at the center of a maelstrom of revolution, free speech and radical political thought. Many pundits have gone so far as to call the domino collapse of the governments in the Middle East a “Twitter Revolution”. Despite all the connections and connotations between Twitter and free speech, Twitter itself seems to be maintaining a hands off approach. Their attitude seems to be, “Hey, we just provide the network what people do with it is their business.” This way of thinking harkens back to the very early days of the web, where the original pioneers worked on a sort of don’t ask don’t tell policy of what people sent across their networks.
The Global Network Initiative is a group of companies and investors that have banded together and come forward to protect privacy and free speech on the web. Google, Yahoo!, Human Rights Watch and Microsoft are among the groups that have signed on. There has been some grousing lately that Twitter hasn’t joined up with the Global Network Initiative. Facebook also has opted out, but their free speech record is a subject for another blog post. The media and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/technology/07rights.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss” title=”Twitterati”>Twitterati are using the fact that Twitter hasn’t signed on for GNI as a brush to paint them as a company that doesn’t put its’ money where its’ mouth is, and that they don’t support free expression.
It seems the opposite to be true. While Twitter has not officially stepped up and started waving the free speech flag, they are quietly providing a tool that makes free speech possible. It’s one thing to talk a big game, and quite another to keep the servers up and running while they pump out controversial information. What is being played out in the media is a talking vs. doing. The Global Network Initiative is a noble idea, no question. However, GNI isn’t the actual service that is allowing people to spread their message on the net. When an angry dictator or a totalitarian regime decides to shutdown a service because they don’t like the message they’re hearing, they won’t be shutting down GNI.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”], and this would seem to be the philosophy that Twitter has put into practice. While they may have declined to comment on their free speech policies, the evidence of their “big stick” (mind out of the gutters, please!) is apparent. The credit for the mass upheaval in North Africa belongs with the citizens there on the front lines, but unquestionably Twitter has been the digital cudgel they’re all carrying. Let’s all keep that in mind when the topic of free speech on the web comes up. Speaking about digital freedom is one thing, but putting your servers on the front line of a real revolution is quite another.