Freedom of Tweet

On Friday, January 28th Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shebab insurgent’s Twitter account was suspended after posting photos of a French commando they had killed and threatening to execute Kenyan hostages, according to Al Arabiya News.

Twitter posted a message on the English-language @HSMPress account (Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen) stating it had been suspended. However, “the Shebab’s Somali- and Arabic-language accounts continue to operate, and the extremists used their Arabic account to denounce the suspension as censorship.” One message read, “This is new evidence of the freedom of expression in the West.”

The Shebab opened the account in December 2011 and had more than 20,000 followers. Most recently before the deactivation, they had used the account to post graphic photographs of a French soldier killed during a failed bid to release a French agent they had held hostage for more than three years; later tweeting to announce the hostage’s execution. Within the same month the group posted a link to a video of several Kenyan hostages they would execute within three weeks if the Kenyan government didn’t release prisoners held on terrorism charges.

Twitter’s regulations state that accounts can be suspended if they post “direct, specific threats of violence against others” or “for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.” But, should it be the site that determines what is tolerated and what is not? Or should it be government? Should the right to tweet be different in one language versus another?

Alec Ross, Washington’s senior advisor for innovation tweeted that terrorist organizations should be “dismantled and destroyed.” “And so for me to think about whether they should have the right to use Twitter or not, I go to a more fundamental question, which is: Do they have the right to exist or not? And my answer to that is no. … Shebab and other institutions that are purveyors of terror are going to get absolutely no sympathy from me, and they certainly aren’t going to see me advocate for their rights,” Ross said.

While new technology and media in the Arab World brings new freedoms and capabilities on the World Wide Web – it raises questions about freedom of speech, rights, and censorship online. Does everyone have the right to tweet?

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