[Viewpoint] Twitter blacks out as Web bows?

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[Viewpoint] Twitter blacks out as Web bows?

Twitter needs an Arab Spring.

In the past 12 months, the microblogging social-networking service played a role in changing the world, 140 characters at a time. From Egypt to Libya to Syria and beyond, Twitter helped activists thwart censorship dragnets, connect with the similarly aggrieved and put underperforming leaders on the defensive.

Well, that was then. This will be remembered as the year Twitter sold its corporate soul at a time when the world needs genuine transparency and the tools to realize it. By blocking messages on behalf of governments, Twitter is both doing the dirty work for leaders from Beijing to Damascus and answering the biggest question of the day: Will the Internet change the world’s authoritarian regimes, or will repressive governments change the Web? Unfortunately, it looks like the latter.

Twitter said it would withhold a posting, or tweet, in a country where a particular kind of content is banned, but the company won’t pull offending tweets from its entire audience. Such claims are no more convincing than those of Google, which spent years rationalizing why it helped nations like China stifle information. Google eventually developed a conscience and left the most-populous nation.

Granted, Twitter is in a tough spot as it goes from a scrappy Internet startup into a global power looking to win Wall Street’s blessing. Yahoo!, Microsoft and Cisco Systems at times did their own bit for the Communist Party. I just wonder if there’s a better way for technology executives to go - one that doesn’t enable the worst impulses of paranoid world leaders in the name of market share and profit.

Egyptians who bravely took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to oust Hosni Mubarak are lucky they did so last year. One shouldn’t overhype the roles Twitter or Facebook played in toppling rogue regimes. Yet if Egyptians were to take to the streets in 2012 rather than 2011, there’s a genuine question about whether history might be different.

An even bigger issue is how governments undermine their own nations’ economic performance. You won’t read about this on Twitter or Facebook, but in the pages of George Orwell’s 1949 classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Orwell invented concepts like “Big Brother” and “thought crime” and “Newspeak” and offered prescient insights into how the Internet would evolve. Make that devolve, as events in Asia become decidedly Orwellian.

The free flow of ideas and data has never been more important to raising living standards. Any country that censors the conduits of those Information Age forces is handicapping itself and restraining the intellectual energy needed to drive growth. It was heartening to see Americans rise up against the Stop Online Piracy Act, a law so vaguely written that it would have had a chilling effect on free expression.

Asia is going in the opposite direction. Take Korea, which is among the most plugged-in nations, with broadband speeds that are the envy of techies the world over. Korea’s curbs on online communications are about social morals and good conduct. Yet there’s plenty of doubt that such controls are compatible with democracy and economic progress.

In India there’s a move to block material deemed objectionable. Who decides what meets that criteria and at what cost? In 2011, leaders were taken aback by an anticorruption campaign that caught fire on Twitter and Facebook. India’s 1.2 billion people need more of that kind of social disruption. Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam aren’t above blocking Web sites or certain content. Japan and Malaysia are making similar noises.

Imagine a world where technology giants weren’t so quick to help governments censor. China should be of particular concern because its capital-markets, social-control model is attracting fans around the developing world.

What if you are an investor exchanging controversial ideas about China’s stability? Or an economist wondering about the accuracy of China’s data? You may be less inclined to question the conventional wisdom and the propaganda. It means the true state of two of the biggest dangers to China’s future - corruption and pollution - will become harder to discern. Officials are clamping down on microblogging services like those run by U.S.-listed Sina Corp.

One can argue that social media helped uncover conditions at the Shenzhen sweatshops that Apple relies on to churn out iPads and iPhones. These hypermodern gadgets are assembled in retrograde working conditions. The rash of suicides at Foxconn International Holdings’ factories tarnished the late Steve Jobs’s legacy as the world was celebrating him as an unambiguous force for good.

Apple faces an Internet Age conundrum. The ubiquity of gadgets and Internet access gives voice to the masses, including those angry about the human toll of Apple’s fat profits. Some users called for a Twitter boycott, using “#TwitterBlackout” as a hash tag, or labels that let people easily find tweets. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders are decrying a move it says runs counter to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board and information exchange.

There’s just one problem with calls to stop tweeting. Twitter can block those, too.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist.

by William Pesek
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