January 30, 2012

Twitter, Democracy, and Internet Freedom

Twitter has taken fire in recent days from activists and bloggers who fear that the company’s new censorship policies will muffle online freedom. News reports recall the ways in which protestors have had made use of Twitter to oppose dictatorships, and dissidents express concern that their ability to communicate will be harmed. The more immediate issue, however, may lie elsewhere. Twitter’s new policies demonstrate vividly the complicated relationship between Internet freedom and democratic government.

The complications take on greater importance in light of America’s global Internet freedom strategy. The U.S. government began an active policy of promoting Internet freedom in the second George W. Bush term, and its efforts have accelerated in the Obama administration. The State Departmentdevotes tens of millions of dollars to support technology and training for online dissidents, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given a series of major speeches highlighting the issue. In one, she invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous four freedoms, added a fifth — the “freedom to connect” — and observed that “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet.”

It is easy to imagine two sides locked in pitched battle over Internet freedom: The democracies, embracing the freedom to connect for all, and the dictatorships, who censor, monitor, and disrupt. Indeed, pressing the cause of Internet freedom has thus far generally meant taking on autocracies, like Beijing and its Great Firewall, the Mubarak regime when it shuttered Egypt’s Internet during the 2011 protests, or Iran as it systematically monitors domestic dissidents. But it has become increasingly clear that autocracies alone do not challenge Internet freedom; democracies do as well.

In the blog post explaining its new policy, Twitter hit on this truth, noting that the company will be active in “countries that have different ideas” than the United States “about the contours of freedom of expression.” All democracies restrict speech to some degree, and the forms of banned expression vary, ranging from child pornography (which is illegal virtually everywhere) to hate speech (banned in Europe and other places but not the United States) to country-specific expression (such as criticism of national heroes or monarchs).

America, however, is an outlier. The United States recognizes some limits on free expression – slander, perjury, “fighting words” and certain other forms of expression are illegal online or off – but its commitment to free speech is nevertheless the most absolute of any major country. This puts it in potential conflict with fellow democracies about what constitute legitimate restrictions on online expression. Given Washington’s role as the world’s most active proponent of Internet freedom, it also complicates its efforts to rally fellow democracies behind the cause.

The examples of differing democratic practice abound. Witness, for example, the recent request by Indian telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal to Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others that they remove content deemed insulting to leaders of the Indian Congress party. Mr. Sibal pledged that his government would take unspecified steps to act if the private sector would not. This month, during a hearing on a related case, an Indian high court justice said that, “like China,” the government could block websites entirely if their hosts do not remove offensive content. Turkey banned YouTube for two years because it refused to remove videos that Turkish courts deemed insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Germany and other countries prohibit Holocaust denial online, and France bans the sale of Nazi paraphernalia over the Internet. Governments in Britain, Italy and Germany have established lists of blocked websites – generally those containing child pornography, hate speech, or online gambling platforms – even though those lists are not always transparent.

The differences arise not only in national policy, but in international law as well. A number of European democracies, including Denmark, France, Slovenia and Switzerland, have signed an additional protocol to the European Convention on Cybercrime, which requires them criminalize such acts as using computers to distribute xenophobic material or insult people because of their race, religion, or ethnic origin.

The United States faces its own potential contradictions. Secretary Clinton used one of her major addresses on Internet freedom to explain why the notion did not apply when Wikileaks published thousands of classified cables online. A district court recently ruled that, as part of its lawful intercept authorities, the Justice Department can seize Twitter feeds. And then there is the tremendous debate that has emerged over the Stop Online Privacy Act.

The truth is that the U.S. government will always enforce some limits on free expression, and our political system will continually wrestle with where the limits should be drawn. But we should not allow this to undermine the important cause of promoting global Internet freedom. Authoritarian governments will inevitably attempt to shield themselves from criticism and pressure by pointing to democracies that ban online expression. Denying them the opportunity to do so successfully will require the United States and other to articulate, publicly and consistently, the critical distinction between the restrictions placed on online speech by democracies and the repression favored by many autocracies.

The distinction rests not only in the kind of banned speech, but also in the process by which the decision to restrict it is made. True democracies bar forms of expression based on law and regulation, and they make decisions to do so in accordance with due process. Their pronouncements are generally transparent, with decision makers accountable to the law, to legislatures, and ultimately to the people, who can turn them out of office in periodic elections. There is a world of difference between a democracy banning speech on “security” grounds when the citizens know what the decision is, who made it, and how to change it, and a dictatorship banning its own “security”-infringing speech by autocratic fiat.

It is crucial to make that distinction clear. Doing so can benefit America’s diplomatic effort to promote Internet freedom, and it may also help guide policymakers at home. Resolving tough new issues often involves complex considerations of technology, law, and fundamental principle. In remembering what makes a democratic approach to the Internet distinctive, we might avoid falling prey to measures that would suggest we are otherwise.