The battle for the soul of the internet

So, here’s the backstory: the names of several public figures, who have reputedly taken out ‘super-injunctions’ preventing information about their private lives from reaching the public domain, were leaked recently via Twitter. The situation has prompted a furore, with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt commenting:

“We are in this crazy situation where information is available freely online which you aren’t able to print in newspapers. We are in a situation where technology, and Twitter in particular, is making a mockery of the privacy laws we have.”

That’s culture secretary code for: “We need to do something about this, chaps.” Frankly, we’re concerned. While we’re keen to protect privacy (notably from intrusions by government), and we empathise with people who want to protect theirs, these gagging orders were issued without being made public. The information revealed is not some sensitive detail of these folks’ intimate lives; it’s the very fact that we don’t get to know any such details.

More concerningly, there’s a risk that cases such as this one could be used to justify attempts by authorities to control a medium that is still a rich source of creativity, innovation, and viewpoints that are under-represented by the mainstream press. If using Twitter to reveal the identities of a few public figures is regulated, where do we draw the line? What happens to the publication of viewpoints that the government of the day happens to disagree with?

Facebook recently deleted around 50 accounts with a left-wing political slant. While, technically, they were in breach of Facebook’s terms and conditions by using individual profiles rather than pages, the large-scale removal suggests that something more orchestrated than a simple Spring clean was in evidence. With this story that Barack Obama (or any subsequent president of the US) could have the capacity to text terror or natural disaster warnings to every mobile phone in America, the sense that authorities are beginning to get to grips with network communication (as opposed to traditional top-down methods) is growing.

Thankfully, Twitter bods seem a bit more interested in addressing these issues than Facebook have been thus far. They’ve reportedly claimed that they have a “mandate” to protect the freedom of expression of their users. We’re not sure how amenable the internet will be to the kind of control that governments like to apply. So much of it is user-generated that it could be very tough to regulate. We’re sue that the powers-that-be will do their level best to bend it to their own ends, however.

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