For better or worse, the notoriety of the internet stepped up a notch last year. Civil unrest was a common theme in the news - not just here in the UK, but throughout the world - the US had the Occupy movements, we had 'the riots' and of course, Arabic countries had the Arab Spring. The resounding driving force behind these events? Social networking.
The Internet and its scope to enforce major change, as demonstrated last year, could be considered the number one enemy of politics and as a result, some Governments are taking every step possible to 'kill the enemy'. We're only in February and there have already been two key attempts to shift the way the Internet influences the world and the behaviours within.
A couple of weeks ago we had SOPA threatening to limit the freedom of expression and creativity. This week we see two of the world's largest Internet outfits, Google (with their Blogger service) and Twitter agreeing to silence tweets and blog posts which do not comply with 'local laws'. Naturally, China and Thailand were the first to welcome this news with open arms.
How will it work? I could tweet something tongue-in-cheek about (insert generic high-profile politician here). With one fell swoop, the government could order Twitter to make that that tweet invisible to UK based users, thus, effectively silencing me. On second thoughts, society would be much better off without my terrible jokes. But in all seriousness, you can see where i'm going with this.
Twitter played a key role in the Arab Spring revolts of last year. Local Twitter users channelled news, information, and messages of freedom and democracy through the site. It was truly astonishing to watch. Three governments were overthrown, and this was all accelerated by the Internet in a matter of clicks. Under the new system, this will no longer happen. It's a concerning thought, especially when you consider people living under repressive regimes. The Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe springs to mind.
Another big question is: why are Google and Twitter giving in to political pressure? Google and Twitter are both huge companies in their own right. They have enough users between them to not lose out too much from being absent in a few countries. Is it a tussle over money or are they trying to achieve a truly global Internet? No matter how positive their intentions, as with everything in this world, it probably comes down to money.
Google said in a statement, "We believe that access to information is the foundation of a free society. Where content is illegal or breaks our terms of service we will continue to remove it."
Let's look below the PR gloss. Access to information is the foundation of a free society. If you limit the access to this information, does this mean that the society is no longer free? Is there even such a thing as a free society in the first place? Each country has different ideals and morals surrounding legality. Something that is acceptable in the UK is deemed unacceptable elsewhere.
It's easy to see the glaring negatives in these changes in policy. It smacks of repression. Surely we live a world which is evolving, not regressing? I want to reference the Suffragette movement here but I could pull from a long list of events where individuals have fought for free speech to their detriment (Martin Luther King, for example). These people didn't make big sacrifices for us to bow to the pressures from the corrupt politicians whose policies they spent so much time lobbying against. Perhaps it's too strong a comparison. Either way, by caving in to authoritarian diplomatic pressure, we risk causing a bigger problem in an already uneven world.
At the same time, some technology heavyweights are claiming that these moves will increase freedom of speech. This style of censorship has worked well in countries such as France and Germany where pro-Nazi material is banned, so if the changes are implemented sensibly then they can be used to positive effect. Twitter and Google are banned in countries which have strict censorship laws, such as China, but perhaps they will now be allowed to operate in these countries. It begs the question, though - is there any point if you can't have an opinion about something?
However heavily this is implemented, it must be remembered that the majority will always win. Let's hope it's the people and not the politicians. As Citizen Smith would say, "power to the people."