In Turkey, Erdoğan's attempt to block Twitter lasted barely two weeks. Photo: Getty
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Social media has been privatised. Why do we treat it as a public space?

Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have essentially erected new borders where such borders did not exist before.

When members of the Turkish opposition sought to embarrass Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in February by publishing voice recordings hinting at corruption, they didn’t go to the traditional media, nor did they start up their own website. Instead, they went straight to YouTube, posting the recordings there and publicising the link on Twitter, where it spread rapidly, eventually leading Erdoğan to block the platform.

The block lasted barely two weeks; protests led to lawsuits, which led to the country’s highest court ruling that the ban violated freedom of expression. Things might have been left there, but instead the Turkish government contacted Twitter and, using the company’s own “country-withheld content” process, requested the removal of specific content. Twitter complied.

Similar stories play out every day around the world. Speech on the vast internet –  where just a decade ago an individualised website or blog was a status symbol – has been effectively centralised into a handful of platforms. Each month, more than one billion people (or about one-seventh of the world’s population) use Facebook and YouTube; both platforms cite 80 per cent of their traffic as coming from outside of the US. Twitter isn’t far behind, with around 650 million active users worldwide.

These are truly global platforms. Centralised, free, and easy to sign up for, these sites attract a broad swath of the world’s public, who use them to engage in political and social debate, organise protests, and of course, chat with each other.

Social media has, in many ways, taken on the role of the public sphere, as defined by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas as “society engaged in critical public debate,” and characterised by a feeling of inclusivity and freedom of expression and association. And yet the online social spaces standing in for the public sphere are private ones, owned by billionaires and shareholders. Nevertheless, we treat them as public spaces.

The trouble with private companies controlling our speech is that they are subject not only to shareholders, but also to governments. Many of the most popular social media companies –  most notably Twitter, which once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” –  profess a commitment to free expression. But in their efforts to provide access to their services to users around the world, these companies often face an unfortunate choice: to avoid being blocked by a government’s censorship apparatus, they must sometimes agree to take down content, at least in a given country.

Take, for example, recent decisions made by Twitter and Facebook to block content at the behest of Pakistan’s telecommunications authority. This isn’t the first time the companies have responded to a legal request (both publish transparency reports outlining where they do respond), but historically, the companies tend to be conservative in their compliance, blocking or removing content only when not doing so could endanger employees in-country. In addition, Pakistani rights groups have suggested that the legal order may not be so legitimate after all.

In any case, when a company unnecessarily complies with censorship orders from a foreign government, it sends the message to users that profit is more important than free speech, something that all of the aforementioned companies count amongst their values. Furthermore, by making the company –  and not the government issuing the orders –  the “bad guy,” it becomes harder for users within a country to fight back, and less clear to users that the governments seeking censorship are the real enemy.

Social media companies have essentially erected new borders where such borders did not exist before. While it’s true that many governments have the technical authority to censor websites, doing so often backfires: Just look to Turkey, where protesters took to the streets after the government blocked Twitter, or Tunisia, where a brief Facebook ban in 2008 resulted in protests so large the ban was almost immediately reversed.

In doing governments’ bidding for them, companies are helping to normalise censorship and decrease organising toward a freer and more open internet. Instead, corporations should take the high road. Social media has, in a short span of time and for better or worse, become our go-to place for organising, sharing, arguing, and connecting with friends. If companies were to take a stand against censorship, they would demonstrate to their global user bases that freedom of expression is a universal value that should apply to all of us.

Jillian C York is a writer and free speech activist

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.