x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Twitter's new policy is no friend of Arab Spring activists

Twitter's decision to block country-specific content could end up being a favour for the likes of Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Some shrugged in resignation. Others maintained it would not affect them. But for those outraged by Twitter's new policy of country-specific censorship of content, one old saying still rings true: just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you.

On Friday, Twitter took the moral high ground. "Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country - while keeping it available in the rest of the world."

This way, the company claimed, freedom of speech was enhanced, since content that would have been removed worldwide will be taken down only in specific countries. Even if these good intentions were genuine, they certainly were naive.

A campaign to boycott Twitter was called for, where else, on Twitter. On Saturday, it came and went, and many would not have noticed. Not too surprisingly, #twitterblackout and #TwitterCensored did not trend in the UAE. The National ran a story titled, somewhat complacently, The great Twitter protest ... that wasn't. There is a danger, as with the controversies that stalked Facebook's privacy issues, that the consequences of the new censorship policy will be played down.

But what happens when anti-government tweets are still being read in other countries? It is unlikely that regimes under attack will take too kindly to citizens' criticism aired to a foreign audience. And what if, as the Emirati uber-tweeter Sultan Al Qassemi predicts, activists simply "just move on to new platforms"?

It's too early to second-guess how the new rules will play out, but it's not too difficult to envisage some grim scenarios.

And for that, look no further than Syria. Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs may have been hailed as pillars of the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, but Bashar Al Assad's regime has shown itself to be relatively savvy, and brutal, in countering online activism.

The reality is that it is regimes exactly like that of the Assads' that are most likely to block tweets or Twitter accounts, and that censorship goes hand in hand with repressive policies.

The so-called Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers that are allegedly being paid up to $3,000 (Dh11,000) a month each, has waged a cyberwar on regime critics, using tactics such as comment spamming and defacing websites. Far more seriously, families of activists at home and abroad have been kidnapped and tortured. The National has two Syrian columnists who write under pseudonyms to protect their lives and those of their families.

Issues of internet freedom are matters of life and death these days.

The truth is that censorship persists in different guises in almost every society. It exists in every Middle East country, including in the UAE, although almost entirely in the form of self-censorship. That includes tweeters, bloggers, columnists and journalists. In the West, media clearly limit free expression according to their own agendas, whether commercial or partisan.

But Twitter's claim that this policy, which amounts to censorship, can somehow further the cause of free speech is a fallacy. In that respect, Twitter has taken a massive gamble. (When China praises your policy on freedom of expression, you know you're in trouble.)

What was once an inspired idea is in danger of sacrificing its essential nature - the free exchange of ideas. There is of course a chance that the new policy will not exacerbate the problem of censorship, but one thing is for certain: it will not improve it.

The past year has seen momentous events of popular empowerment, with Twitter and Facebook rightly celebrated as tools promoting freedom. In Syria and elsewhere today, we see that process is yet unfinished. It is a shame that Twitter seems to value so lightly its role in the face of that kind of repression.

Paranoid? Perhaps. Doesn't mean it's not true.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @AliKhaled_