Twitter to restrict user content in some countries, according to Reuters. This is more an instant deep freeze than a chilling effect. We’ve managed to fend off government attempts to control the thoughts that get into our heads, especially as regards this sort of prior restraint, but apparently it’ll be the private companies that breach those walls and become the de facto authorities, just without the legal guidelines for how much they can control. How very Bill Gibson.
Twitter’s probably in a tough spot, or a lot of very different tough spots, as people around the world use its service. But does it really need to care? If it’s compliant with U.S. law, it’s probably safe from attacks under other laws, at least as long as it keeps its assets local. But its signal is subject to blocking, and that’s its real asset. I guess I can understand why it would feel pressed to abandon its position in “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to become some private precinct in an expanding thought-police force. Otherwise, it risks being shut down completely in unfriendly jurisdictions, and none of the signal gets through.
Truth be told, though, the governments will have to adapt to Twitter as much as it adapts to them. People can find ways around those sorts of blocks, and it has become pretty clear that they’ll have to — and pretty soon, too. One option is for users to shift en masse to something other than Twitter for that traffic, and I hope that’s part of the solution. Who wants to deal with people who are THAT quick to toss a principle as important as free speech under the wheels to gain a little traction at the first sign of slipping? But Twitter’s just one example of a general assault on free movement of information, and the SOPA nuts clearly show that it’s not just a few minor local dictators who want to choke off the flow for their individual convenience. And SOPA is manifestly an initiative of private companies, the complicity of elected officials notwithstanding.
When governments try to micromanage our brains, we have legal options to push them back, but what can we do when a private company makes a grab for those same controls? We can vote with our feet, obviously, and use another private company’s service. Many will do so, and many will try to become that private alternative. But many will stick with the familiar provider as long as it doesn’t intrude on their particular speech, and most of it is benign enough not to cause trouble on either side. So we’re left with only the neutral-to-happy traffic — lots of kitten photos and birthday wishes, interspersed with chirpy messages from our sponsors and chances to pay the low-low price of 99 cents for yet another iTunes download. Dependence is a chilly state.