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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On the "one-state" solution to Israel and Palestine, what did Donald Trump mean?

The US President seemed to dismantle two decades of foreign policy in his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu. 

If the 45th President of the United States wasn’t causing enough chaos at home, he has waded into the world’s most intricate conflict – Israel/Palestine. 

Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump made an apparently off-the-cuff comment that has reverberated around the world. 

Asked what he thought about the future of the troubled region, he said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.”

To the uninformed observer, this comment might seem fairly tame by Trump standards. But it has the potential to dismantle the entire US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Trump said he could "live with" either a two-state or one-state solution. 

The "two-state solution" has become the foundation of the Israel-Palestine peace process, and is a concept that has existed for decades. At its simplest, it's the idea that an independent state of Palestine can co-exist next to an independent Israel. The goal is supported by the United Nations, by the European Union, by the Arab League, and by, until now, the United States. 

Although the two-state solution is controversial in Israel, many feel the alternative is worse. The idea of a single state would fuel the imagination of those on the religious right, who wish to expand into Palestinian territory, while presenting liberal Zionists with a tricky demographic maths problem - Arabs are already set to outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories by 2020. Palestinians are divided on the benefits of a two-state solution. 

I asked Yossi Mekelberg, Professor of International Relations at Regent's University and an associate fellow at Chatham House, to explain exactly what went down at the Trump-Netanyahu press conference:

Did Donald Trump actually mean to say what he said?

“Generally with President Trump we are into an era where you are not so sure whether it is something that happens off the hoof, that sounds reasonable to him while he’s speaking, or whether maybe he’s cleverer than all of us put together and he's just pretending to be flippant. It is so dramatically opposite from the very professorial Barack Obama, where the words were weighted and the language was rich, and he would always use the right word.” 

So has Trump just ditched a two-state solution?

“All of a sudden the American policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, a two-state solution, isn’t the only game in town.”

Netanyahu famously didn’t get on with Obama. Is Trump good news for him?

“He was quite smug during the press conference. But while Netanyahu wanted a Republican President, he didn’t want this Republican. Trump isn’t instinctively an Israel supporter – he does what is good for Trump. And he’s volatile. Netanyahu has enough volatility in his own cabinet.”

What about Trump’s request that Netanyahu “pull back on settlements a little bit”?

“Netanyahu doesn’t mind. He’s got mounting pressure in his government to keep building. He will welcome this because it shows even Trump won’t give them a blank cheque to build.”

Back to the one-state solution. Who’s celebrating?

“Interestingly, there was a survey just published, the Palestinian-Israel Pulse, which found a majority of Israelis and a large minority of Palestinians support a two-state solution. By contrast, if you look at a one-state solution, only 36 per cent of Palestinians and 19 per cent of Israel Jews support it.”

 

 

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.