I’m in a bit of a quandary. I love socializing online but it seems that as time goes on the big social networking sites are becoming more and more invasive, controlling, exclusive, and downright anti-social. First it was Facebook with its data mining, online tracking, and ridiculously complex privacy options. Did you know that even if you log out of Facebook it is still tracking your every move online? It can even share your surfing activities unless you figure out how to turn that off. And that’s just today’s trick. Tomorrow they will find a new way to collect data about you and you’ll have to go through the same exercise again if you want to protect your privacy.
Now Twitter, which has been credited with helping dissidents under repressive regimes to organize protests, is getting into the censorship business. They have announced that any government that wants to censor tweets on certain subjects or by certain users in their country can do so if they supply the appropriate paperwork. Twitter says “the tweets must flow,” just not the ones that any government finds inconvenient. Some have pointed out that Twitter is being quite transparent about this, compared to some websites (like Yahoo) that censor silently. Tweets won’t just disappear, they will be grayed out with a message that it has been banned in your country. But for a company that garnered such fame by facilitating the Arab Spring to now collaborate with governments to censor on demand seems particularly monstrous. Freedom of expression is a universal human right, not to mention a constitutional right in Twitter’s home country, so why are they denying that right to others?
I seem to have painted myself into a lonely corner with my ethical objections to these giant social networks. There are certainly alternatives. There’s Diaspora, a distributed, open source social network where you fully own and control your own data. It’s great but the problem is that about 99% of the people on it are software developers talking about software development. There is also identi.ca, which is an open source alternative to Twitter, but is also dominated by techie types. There are plenty of great subject-specific web communities out there, but obviously they don’t offer the convenient one-stop-shopping of the big social networks. Then there is the little problem of the good friends I have already made, mainly on Twitter. Just moving on and leaving them behind is not an option.
I honestly don’t know what to do. It does seem as though the free and open internet we used to know and love is being eroded, bit by bit. Both governments and corporations are getting more and more control over what we can do, share, and be online. The question of who owns the internet is being answered by those with the money and political influence to stake a claim in cyberspace. At the same time the open internet movement is strong, and as we saw with the SOPA/PIPA protest, the virtual masses are aware and willing to stand up for a free internet.
I am faced with the age old question of whether to vote with my feet or try to create change from within. I’ve seen some people leave Google+ in protest and others stay to fight the good fight. I cannot say which is better. It remains to be seen what will happen on Twitter after today’s #twitterblackout boycott. Perhaps people will decide to up and leave for identi.ca, Disapora, and other free and open social networks. It doesn’t seem too likely though. It also seems highly unlikely that Twitter would bow to pressure, refuse to censor, and allow itself to get banned in every country that stifles dissent. Those are some pretty big markets we’re talking about.
I guess I will just have to wait and see and try to learn more. I recently started reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, which explores all these issues in detail. At the very least we should be well-informed about the forces that are shaping our online lives.