Is Access to Social Networking a Measure of a Society’s Freedom?

In responding to the political demonstrations, the Egyptian government has disrupted internet service and mobile phone services, in the obvious hopes of (a) reducing the volume of testimonies and videos being communicated outside of the country and (b) to disrupt the capacity of the protesters to remain organised and to communicate their progress to the greater population.

The BBC reports that both Facebook and Twitter— relied upon by protest organisers— have responded to the attacks in order to maintain service in these countries.  The Atlantic, meanwhile, offers some thoughts on whether or not Facebook has a moral or political obligation to aid protesters in Egypt or Tunisia, given the ease with which governments can compromise accessibility.

While undoubtedly any service that can engender freedom of speech and communication is a boon to the good of society, should we co-operate in placing for-profit corporations in such an essential position? I think that the question is an open one, but let me provide some reasons for why we might use caution in making such a claim. Both Facebook and Twitter have profits to make by being employed in mass revolution, but they do not belong, as might an (albeit inefficient) press, to the movements themselves. If the military employs Facebook or Twitter, it will profit there as well. In a further point, the Telegraph and The Times have both documented occasions where terrorist movements have used social networking sites to their benefit.

It is also worth considering whether, in the case of social networking websites, freedom and high-bandwidth communication always converge. A press that will print and disseminate anything for any interest group will be seen here to advance the cause of human freedom, there to hamper and constrain it.

What these websites actually do is quicken and accelerate social movements, for better or for worse. We will cheer when tweets topple an oppressive regime, and we can do little other than worry when they advance movements that embody homophobia, misogyny, and violence. But we should be cautious in buying in to the notion (much lauded by Twitter and Facebook) that social networking is the medium by which we can gauge a society’s freedom.

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