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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Commons Confidential: When Corbyn met Obama

The Labour leader chatted socialism with the leader of the free world.

Child labour isn’t often a subject for small talk, and yet it proved an ice-breaker when Jeremy Corbyn met Barack Obama. The Labour leader presented the US president with a copy of What Would Keir Hardie Say? edited by Pauline Bryan and including a chapter penned by Comrade Corbyn himself.

The pair, I’m informed by a reliable snout, began their encounter by discussing exploitation and how Hardie started work at the tender age of seven, only to be toiling in a coal mine three years later.

The book explores Hardie’s relevance today. Boris Johnson will no doubt sniff a socialist conspiracy when he learns that the president knew, or at least appeared to know, far more about Hardie and the British left than many MPs, Labour as well as Tory.

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Make what you will of the following comment by a very senior Tory. During a private conversation with a Labour MP on the same select committee, this prominent Conservative, upon spotting Chuka Umunna, observed: “We were very relieved when he pulled out of your leadership race. Very capable. We feared him.” He then, in
a reference to Sajid Javid, went on: “We’ve got one of them.” What could he mean? I hope it’s that both are young, bald and ambitious . . .

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To Wales, where talk is emerging of who will succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader. Jones hasn’t announced plans to quit the posts he has occupied since 2009, but that isn’t dampening speculation. The expectation is that he won’t serve a full term, should Labour remain in power after 5 May, either as a minority administration or in coalition in the Senedd.

Names being kicked about include two potential newcomers: the former MEP Eluned Morgan, now a baroness in the House of Cronies, and the Kevin Whately lookalike Huw Irranca-Davies, swapping his Westminster seat, Ogmore, for a place in the Welsh Assembly. Neither, muttered my informant, is standing to make up the numbers.

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No 10’s spinner-in-chief Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver’s decision to place Barack Obama’s call for Britain to remain in Europe in the Daily Telegraph reflected, whispered my source, Downing Street’s hope that the Torygraph’s big-business advertisers and readers will keep away from the rest of the Tory press.

The PM has given up on the Europhobic Sun and Daily Mail. Both papers enjoy chucking their weight about, yet fear the implications for their editorial clout should they wind up on the losing side if the country votes to remain on 23 June.

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Asked if that Eurofan, Tony Blair, will play a prominent role in the referendum campaign, a senior Remainer replied: “No, he’s toxic. But with all that money, he could easily afford to bankroll it.”

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism