Causa Twitter and the state of “Free” and “Open” on the Internet

A blog post from Twitter published yesterday has fired up the censorship debate again. Right now, all over the internet people are discussing this, and the discussion doesn’t exactly show Twitter in a favorable light.

Reading other people’s comments on the subject and posting my own made me realize I have to write something on this other than just comments and replies.

For those of you who haven’t read the said post, here’s a little clarification of the issue at hand:

According to Twitter’s own announcement, the only change is in the addition of the technical means to block certain content only in certain countries, where said content would be illegal.
They give an example from Germany and France, explaining how pro-Nazi content is illegal in both countries.
Blocking content only for users in the country where it’s illegal is certainly an improvement over blocking it for everybody.
So, it’s not really a change in their policies.

Still, the heat of the debate is undeniable, and in light of other recent threats to a free and open internet it is also understandable.

However, I think an analysis is in order of where we stand today when it comes to “free” and “open” in the context of “the Internet”.

First, let’s assume some common definitions for those terms, with “free” standing for “Free speech” (defined by many as the right to say whatever you feel like saying) and “open” standing for everybody having access to all content.
The definition of “the Internet” is a little more complicated. From a pure technological point of view, it is, in simplified terms, a global network of computers that includes everything from the World Wide Web to e-mail, from FTP to IRC to newsgroups. Most of the time, though, when we say “the Internet”, we mean the “World Wide Web”.
The technological definition, however, is not what we need for our analysis. In the context of the censorship and free speech debate we need to define “the internet” on a more philosophical basis. On that basis “the internet” could be seen as a public space, which is the way most people see it.

Now, the censorship debate as a whole focuses on that last definition. Unfortunately, that’s where the problem comes in.

In order to understand why this is a problem we first need to examine free speech rights outside of the internet.

In the physical world the right to free speech protects the right to demonstrate and to voice your opinion in public. For example, if you believe that battery cages should be banned, you have the right to stand on the street and hand out leaflets promoting the idea. However, if you take your leaflets into a shopping center / mall, you might get told you’re not allowed to do that. After all, the shopping center is privately owned. Therefore, the owners can set policies about what’s allowed and what not.

I read somebody comparing companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook to the shopping mall in this analogy, and the street would be “the Internet”. This comparison, as well as the definition of the internet as a public space, doesn’t work, unfortunately. “The street” is a public space, payed for by the tax payer. “The Internet” is not. The internet as a whole is mostly operated by private companies. You pay a company, called an Internet Service Provider, to give you the technical means to access the internet. The websites you read are run either by: companies with an interest in making money; by private people like me, who in turn pay a web hosting service to be able to express themselves; or by private people who sign up with a free service where they can express themselves, the free service usually being run by yet another company. All those server farms where you host your content are owned by private companies. Even if we’re talking about websites of NGOs, they still are paid for by somebody, and they wouldn’t exist without the commercial internet around them.

Now, you might argue, since you’re paying for the service, you should be allowed to use it in any way you want, but even that argument is flawed. After all, there’s plenty of pre-internet examples of situations where you spend money on a service but still have to play by the rules set by the company providing the service. For example, you might decide to spend a few hundred bucks on dinner at a fancy restaurant, but you still have to follow the dress code.

So, whether we like it or not: This “free and open internet” that we’re trying to protect? It doesn’t exist.

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