How much should we trust our new information overlords?

So much is possible with the digital tools we have today: Google (s goog) provides information from billions of sources instantly; Facebook lets us stay in touch with friends around the globe; and Twitter allows anyone to broadcast their thoughts wherever they are. But with all this freedom comes a tradeoff, as Twitter’s censorship news reinforced for many this week. In each case, we are essentially at the mercy of the company whose network we are using (and being used by). If Google doesn’t like your name, it can block you; if Facebook doesn’t like your status, it can delete it; and if Twitter gets a takedown request for your message, it will disappear. Our freedom of speech relies on these new information gatekeepers.
On Thursday, Twitter announced it now has the ability to censor individual tweets within certain countries. Although the company made a point of stressing it will only do this in extreme cases, where it is required to do so by law — in Germany, for example, where promoting Nazi principles is a crime — the news produced a wave of criticism from users and Twitter critics about how the information network was “committing social suicide” and caving in to dictators and authoritarian governments. Although Twitter said it would be as transparent as possible, and it appears to be possible to work around the blocking of tweets, the impact of the news was still negative for many.

Some wondered whether the move was connected to the investment by Saudi billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, while others have been muttering conspiracy theories about Twitter censoring the #Occupy hashtag from its trending topics (which the company has repeatedly denied doing). For every balanced perspective from an observer like Jillian York at the Electronic Frontier Foundation or sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who argued that the policy was positive, there is a rant from someone about how Twitter has failed to uphold its promise as a bastion of free speech. Even high-profile Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei said “if Twitter starts censoring, I’ll stop tweeting.”

Trust is the currency in our relationship with networks

Google has been riding the slippery slope of user trust recently as well, after criticism that its new personalized search features are an attempt to use its market power to promote its own Google+ social network — something that not only irritated competitors like Twitter and Facebook, but made some (including me) question whether the search giant had turned its back on the promise it made to users in 2004 to provide objective search results. The outcry over the changes then spilled over onto Google’s new privacy policy, which drew fire from privacy advocates and users despite the fact that little had changed.
The common thread in both of these incidents is trust, and the perception on the part of some users — and government regulators as well, in Google’s case — that Google and Twitter are both losing some of what made them unique. In Google’s case, an objectivity or purity in its results, and in Twitter’s case, a sense of freedom and openness (rightly or wrongly) about the network and users’ ability to publish whatever and wherever they wish. Twitter’s changes seemed especially disappointing to some because of how powerful that freedom was during the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere.

Facebook may not have touched off any storms this week on the trust front, but it is an old hand at disappointing users, whether it’s by changing privacy settings without telling them, tracking users even when they aren’t logged in or removing content in what some allege is an attempt at censorship of certain topics. Google and Facebook have also irritated users by requiring the use of real names, which critics argue benefits the companies and their attempts to serve advertisers more than it does users.

Principles are important, but these are businesses too

These are businesses with corporate interests, not triumphant defenders of free speech — and they each provide the bulk of their services for free, and make money by selling their users’ attention to advertisers. General counsel Alex Macgillivray says Twitter is committed to being “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and the company says it would never use its new powers to block tweets during an event like the Arab Spring, or prevent dissidents in Iran or China from using it to further their cause. But how do we know this for sure? We don’t.
The standard response when someone criticizes Google’s privacy policy or Twitter’s new tactics or Facebook’s changes is “Don’t use them.” But what’s the alternative? Google isn’t just a search engine, but a giant email provider, and has a host of other services people need to do their jobs. Facebook and Twitter are tools that hundreds of millions of people use daily to connect and share with their friends and family — which is why “open source” alternatives such as Diaspora and have failed to gain much traction.
Dave Winer and other open-network advocates have repeatedly made the point that relying on a single corporation, or even several of them, for access to such important tools of communication is a huge risk. But what choice do we have? We either have to try harder to find more open alternatives, or we have to trust that Google and Twitter and Facebook are looking out for our best interests — and when they don’t, we have to make it clear that they are failing, and hold them to account.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Richard Engel, NBC