Twitter's Defiance is Good News

I love Twitter, all the more since Eric Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. government’s secret spying program. The company largely stands apart from other techs’ positions, but not completely. In December, I scolded Twitter, along with Apple, Facebook, Google, and a smattering of others for their “disingenuous and self-serving” call for global government surveillance reform.

Today, Twitter tweaks the government regarding an agreement that expands disclosure of information requests, including those that fall under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In a startling act of defiance, Twitter chooses not to disclose the number of FISA and other national security-related requests, contending they’re scope is an “overly broad range”.

“For the disclosure of national security requests to be meaningful to our users, it must be within a range that provides sufficient precision to be meaningful”, Jeremy Kessel, manager of Twitter Global Legal Policy, contends. “Unfortunately, we are currently prohibited from providing this level of transparency”.

In other words, Twitter wants to reveal more than just the number—what the requests are for.

There are reasons for resistance, because of what’s at stake. Twitter’s business model is all about enabling people to freely share, but governments’ requests for Twitter account information are way up—1,410 between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2013, compared to 849 during the first six months of 2012. That’s a 66 percent increase.

“We think the government’s restriction on our speech not only unfairly impacts our users’ privacy, but also violates our First Amendment right to free expression and open discussion of government affairs”, Kessel contends.

But that’s a simplification. Twitter really seeks to protect its 241 million users, many of which tweet at the risk of the lives and for whom anonymity is essential. Their free speech is at risk.

In Only Eight Years
I started using Twitter the day after Christmas 2006 and have never made enough use of the service. (But I am changing!) Twitter’s best role is breaking news, whether provided by the citizen or professional journalist.

In my June 2009 post “Iran and the Internet Democracy” I praised Twitter’s utility and other tools, like YouTube, for radically changing how news is reported—in “only three years”. Now it’s eight, but the point remains.

Facebook and Twitter opened to the general public in 2006 and YouTube in November 2005. iPhone came later, in June 2007. So many of the tools people use to share information—and essentially break news stories—are all fairly recent developments. Pinterest. Instagram. Many others. Take your pick.

I observed nearly five years ago:

The Internet is the new democracy, which can be seen from pictures and videos coming from protests in Iran. Iranian protests are capturing the world’s attention in part because of fairly new tools that make it easy for most anyone to be a broadcaster, a real-time journalist. These tools punctuate change sweeping through the news industry and destabilizing others.

During the June 2009 uprising and the Arab Spring protests starting 18 months later, Twitter played a vital role for free speech and spot news dissemination. But Americans’ perspectives were different then. We had yet to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eric Snowden’s revelations opened our eyes and cast us out of the Garden of Ignorance.

Twitter’s defiance is no longer about repressive regimes abroad but legitimate concerns about our own government’s behavior. In the strangest way, I long for the Cold War. Because against the Soviet Union, Americans and their government had a measure of repression, such as imprisonment without trial or legal representation or secret surveillance of citizens. Scary, isn’t, how familiar such activities are here in the United States today.

What are we becoming? Surely the answer is a Twitter hashtag.

Photo Credit: Duncan Hull