ImageRevelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program have highlighted how much data the government collects on people both here and abroad. At the same time however, the leaks have eclipsed current events such as those in Turkey, which should remind us just how far some governments will also go to restrict their citizens’ own access to information.

Remnants of the Arab Spring

It has been more than two years since Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being harassed by municipal officials. In a fateful demonstration of Chaos Theory, videos of subsequent protests spread quickly via Facebook and YouTube, ultimately inflaming much of the Middle East. And though the link between social media and the Arab Spring is still being debated, several governments in the region seem to be convinced.

Not long after Turkey’s besieged prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that “social media is the worst menace to society,” police detained 25 people on suspicion of stirring insurrection with Twitter. Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission has closed access to the popular messaging app Viber, and has threatened to do the same with WhatsApp and Skype. While Iran continues to build its own version of the Internet, with extreme restrictions on how users will be able to connect to the outside world.

Behind China’s Great Firewall

Yet these efforts pale in comparison to the technological dominance of China’s infamous Great Firewall. Earlier this month authorities blocked the encrypted version of Wikipedia ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, forcing users to rely on the less secure HTTP version where content can be banned. (Ironically, Chinese scientists have taken the lead in developing a quantum communication system that will make it possible to send completely secure messages anywhere in the world.)

China is also alleged to maintain a staff of more than 40,000 censors who regularly monitor its microblogging site Weibo. Each watchdog can scan as many as 50 posts a minute, and it is estimated that as many as 30 percent of all posts can be deleted as soon as they go public.

Unintended Consequences

What can be more effective than immediately eliminating unwanted information? Preventing it from appearing in the first place, which may be one of the consequences of the NSA disclosures. Some journalists have warned that the Justice Department’s controversial investigation of reporters’ sources is having a “chilling effect” on their work. The same might be expected of lay persons when they realize their emails, posts, chats or comments are being scrutinized.

To be fair, the government is hardly alone in possibly curbing open expression by capitalizing on the vast amounts of data people generate on social sites. A survey by employee intelligence firm HireRight, for example, found that 61 percent of employers either use, or plan to use, social networks to help screen candidates. Such lack of privacy is one reason users are apparently moving off of Facebook, while those who remain are becoming more protective of their identities, according to a seven-year study by Carnegie Mellon University.

Surveillance = Censorship

Like most things in life, managing security – whether national or corporate – and the right to speak freely is a balancing act. The majority of Americans who are not troubled by the NSA leak may not equate surveillance with censorship. But as the Frank La Rue, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, noted in a report last week, “privacy and freedom of expression are interlinked and mutually dependent; an infringement upon one can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.” 

Perhaps more than anything else, it is discourse that separates social media from most conventional forms of communication. Take that away and its value is significantly diminished. The ability to gather and analyze data is becoming essential to the operations of both government and business; and to the safety and satisfaction of citizens and consumers. But limiting peoples’ capability to converse – whether before or after the fact – is tantamount to killing the digital golden goose. Thus, discretion should prevail.

That said, the challenge may be even greater overseas. In the marketplace of the future, two things are seemingly inevitable. First, companies will do more business in countries other than their own. Second, they will conduct more of that business across social media. At the end of last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, 89 nations signed a new treaty that would grant them more authority over citizens’ Internet usage. Among the signatories were up-and-coming economies such as China, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and South Africa. And although the pact failed to gain support from the majority of member countries, it reflects broad apprehension about digital and social media.

An Historical Perspective

The circumstances, however, are not entirely unique. Like the Internet, Gutenberg’s printing press gave rise to myriad new voices and was instrumental in the Reformation and both the American and French revolutions. Just 50 years after the invention of moveable type in 1450, printing offices across Europe were turning out books at an extraordinary rate of 10 million volumes a year. But the backlash was just as dramatic. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church decreed that no book could be printed or sold without its permission; and monarchies throughout the continent placed highly restrictive licensing requirements on all publications. 

Nonetheless, books today are everywhere; though some are still banned in parts of the world where social media is censored as well.