Expert Labs data: How does the @WhiteHouse drive engagement on Twitter? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Over at ExpertLabs, Andy Baio created a snazzy infographic of engagement around the White House’s Twitter account using data collected through the ThinkUp App.

There are lots of views into engagement on Twitter, but we have the data to give a unique view into what it looks like from the @whitehouse perspective.

We’ve tracked their activity for the last couple years using ThinkUp to analyze and publicly release large datasets. We decided it might be nice show how the White House engaged their audience last year — without resorting to cheap gimmicks like linkbait infographics.

As Baio points out, if you want to work some mojo on this data set, you can download the .CSV file and have some fun. Kudos to the Expert Labs team for making both the open data and visualization available to all.

On Twitter, censorship and Internet freedom

I’m watching a lot of reactions roll across the social Web to the news that Twitter will now be able to censor tweets, if required by law, on a country-by-country basis.

 

“In the face of a valid and applicable legal order,” Twitter spokeswoman Jodi Olson told techPresident’s Nick Judd via an email, “the choice facing services is between global removal of content with no notice to the user, or a transparent, targeted approach where the content is removed only in the country in question.” Twitter is opting for what the New York Times has dubbed a “micro-censorship policy,” where it will withhold certain content (aka, tweets) from Twitter users within a country.

Twitter’s help page on “country withheld content” offers more context and explanation for users than that its blog:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

As is often the case, Danny Sullivan has produced the more comprehensive, detailed analysis of what the news shared on Twitter’s blog today means, backed up by solid reporting. He says that “there’s no need to hit the panic button.” Based upon what I’m reading, I agree, albeit with caveats that we’ll need to see how this is implemented.

“The restrictions will be based on the IP address of the user,” writes Sullivan. As this isn’t perfect, Twitter will allow people to override this, if they believe they’re being inaccurately targeted.” As Sullivan explains, Twitter has been complying with DMCA requests for some time. This move actually means we will probably learn more about what’s been happening. Here’s the meat of his post:

“What’s new is that eventually, Twitter may expand to having staff based in other countries. That makes the company more liable to legal actions in those countries, so it needs a way to comply with those legal demands. The new “Country Withheld Content” change gives it a framework to do so.

That, of course, leads to another concern. What if some country undergoing a revolution declares that tweeting about protests is illegal? Would Twitter suddenly start censoring tweets that many within those countries might depend on?

Twitter tells me that this is more a hypothetical concern than a real one that it expects to face. Typically when this happens, Twitter says, it doesn’t get demands to to block particular accounts or tweets. Instead, authorities in the affected countries either ignore Twitter (good for freedom of expression) or block it entirely (bad, but also out of Twitter’s control).”

The crux of the matter, to me, is that Twitter is a venture-backed private company with investors that want to see growth and profit. It’s not a public utility. Jack has said that he envisions every connected device being able to tweet. That’s not going to come to pass unless they expand into the world’s biggest markets, China and India. To do so, Twitter will have to make similar decisions as Google did when it entered China and censored its results. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt decided eventually to change how it handled search, redirecting to Hong Kong. This is only a first pass at understanding what’s happened here and why, so other explanations are welcome in the comments, if grounded in fact.

As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have been explaining for years, what we think of as the new public square online is complicated by the fact that these platforms for free expression are owned and operated by private companies. Rebecca has explored these issues and how we can think of them in context in her new, excellent book, “Consent of the Networked.”

“I know some people saw this and got upset about “censorship!” but looking at the details, it actually looks like Twitter is doing a smart thing here, wrote Mike Masnick, the founder of TechDirt, on Twitter deciding to censor locally than block globally:

You could argue that the proper response would be to stand up to local governments and say, “sorry, we don’t block anything” — and I’d actually have sympathy with that response. But the truth is that if a government is demanding censorship, then Twitter is likely going to have to comply or face complete blocking. The solution that it came up with is somewhat more elegant: it will just block the specific content in the specific location and (importantly) will try to let users know that the content is blocked while also sending as much info as it can to the Chilling Effects website so that people can learn about what’s being censored. This is a lot more transparent and hopefully actually shines more light on efforts to censor Twitter.

While hundreds of millions of people may hope that Twitter’s executive team, including @Jack or @DickC, Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, and YouTube‘s execs, to name key players, will act in the public interest and protect their users, they are obligated to obey the laws of the countries they operate within and their major shareholders.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my sense is that, of all of the major social media players — which in 2012 now include Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Tumblr and MySpace, amongst others — Twitter has been one of the leaders in the technology community for sticking up for its users where it can, particularly with respect to the matter of fighting to make Twitter subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department regarding user data public.

When reached for comment, Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offering the following statement:

From my view, this isn’t different from how Twitter’s already been handling court-ordered requests, except that it won’t affect users outside of a given country. Given their moves to open an office in the UK (with all of its crazy defamation laws), I can see why they’ve taken this route. It’s unfortunate that they may have to censor any content at all, but I applaud their move to be as transparent as possible about it.

Twitter’s general counsel, Alexander Macgillivray (@amac) deserves all due credit for that decision and others, along with the lucid blog post that explained how SOPA would affect ordinary, non-infringing users.

Both Colin Crowell, Twitter’s head of public policy, and MacGillivray indicated on Twitter today that if tweets are “reactively withheld” in a given country, the rest of the world will still be able to see them.

The  Chilling Effects page for Twitter  “is a first step towards that, though we hope to have fewer datapoints,” tweeted MacGillivray.

Let’s hope they uphold that commitment and share raw data about the censorship requests, as +Google itself has done, where possible.

UPDATE: Per Xeni Jardin’s post on Twitter and censorship at BoingBoing, Macgillivray told her “three quick things”:

#1: I can confirm that this has nothing to do with any investor (primary or secondary).

#2: This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25

#3: you’ll see notices about withheld content at: http://www.chillingeffects.org… so you’ll get to figure out whether we’ve “caved” or not with data. This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.

Mathew Ingram also posted a thoughtful analysis of Twitter censoring tweets at GigaOm:

The company says that it will not accede to just any request for removal, regardless of whether it comes from a government, and has made it clear that its commitment to free speech extends to dissidents using Twitter for revolutionary purposes during events such as the Arab Spring in Egypt. But as Twitter becomes more and more of a global phenomenon, those commitments could be put to the test. What happens when someone posts a tweet that makes fun of the founder of Turkey, something that is a crime under Turkish law?

More than anything else, Twitter’s announcement highlights both how integral a part of the global information ecosystem it has become, and how vulnerable that ecosystem can be when a single entity controls such a crucial portion of it. How Twitter handles that challenge will ultimately determine whether it deserves the continued trust of its users.

UPDATE: Jillian C. York wrote more about Twitter’s latest move on her blog:

Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law.  Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content.  Google lays out its orders in its Transparency Report.  Other companies are less forthright.  In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor).  And if they have “boots on the ground”, so to speak, in the country in question?  No choice.

In the event that a company chooses to comply with government requests and censor content, there are a number of mitigating steps the company can take.  The most important, of course, is transparency, something that Twitter has promised.  Google is also transparent in its content removal (Facebook? Not so much).  Twitter’s move to geolocate their censorship is also smart, given the alternative (censoring it worldwide, that is) – particularly since it appears a user can manually change his or her location.

I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies. Twitter has previously taken down content–for DMCA requests, at least–and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future. I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation…and I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up.”

UPDATE: Writing at the Wall Street Journal’s “Real Time China” blog, Josh Chin looks at Chinese reactions to the news and what it would take to get Twitter unblocked in China. His reporting casts doubt on my speculation above and in a statement I gave to Al Jazeera last night.

Even if Twitter were somehow able to get in Beijing’s good graces, Mr. Bishop says, it would have almost no shot at competing with home-grown “weibo” microblogging products from Sina and Tencent that are already well-established and offer more features. “Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are better products,” he says. “Twitter’s only competitive advantage here is freedom of speech. Once you start censoring, what do you have left to offer?”

Indeed, Mr. Dorsey himself quashed the idea of Twitter being able to break into China in an interview in Hong Kong in October in which he said his company “just can’t compete” in China “and that’s not up to us to change.”

In developing the ability to censor tweets by region, Twitter more likely has different markets in mind. The only countries mentioned by name in the blog post announcing the new policy were France and Germany, both of which, the post notes, ban pro-Nazi content. How to handle that ban is a dilemma that Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all struggled with in Germany.

UPDATE: Nick Judd published an excellent post at techPresident reporting on why some prominent journalists and free expression advocates, including Andy Carvin (see comment below) and York aren’t mad about Twitter’s censorship move:

All of this seems to indicate that Twitter chose this way to proceed in the hopes that it would serve as a compromise between the company’s desire to expand globally and its desire to remain on the same side as the folks at the EFF on issues like user privacy and user rights. This is the same company that, despite getting no money from its users, went to the legal mat for some of them to earn the right to notify them that federal investigators wanted records of their direct messages in conjunction with a Wikileaks investigation. But it’s still a company, and as such, its platform has to adhere to the rule of law in the U.S. and anywhere else it has staff, or, well … Megaupload.

Twitter’s move here is not really pre-emptive. Other Internet giants have already implemented a similar policy. Google, remember, already maps every request for content removal or government request for user data that it can.

And Twitter actually is under pressure from foreign governments — just not the ones you’d expect.

As we say here on the interwebs, read the whole thing.

UPDATE: “Twitter’s policy is actually a model of how this should work,” says “technosociologist” Zeynep Tufecki, who writes that Twitter’s new policy is helpful to free-speech advocates:

In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can. It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks cas,e and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.

Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.

“Decentralization is often great but in Internet is not free of questions of jurisdiction and law. As such, this is a good policy,” she tweeted. “It reflects recognition that Net isn’t “virtual”; it’s not a law & govt free zone; Q is how to protect freedoms given reality.”

UPDATE: “The reality, of course, is that 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,” writes Mathew Ingram on his an excellent post curating of links and analysis regarding this move over at GigaOm considering how much should we trust our information overlords. (And yes, linking to his linking is feeling a bit meta today.)

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 is 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 Identi.ca 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.

UPDATE: I talked with Al Jazeera English about making sense of Twitter and censorship. Cynthia Wong, Director of the Global Internet Freedom Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, was also quoted in the story.

[Wong] says the question Twitter must ask itself is, is it better to remain available in a country, even if some content is blocked?

Wong says Twitter is in fact being thoughtful in its answer to that question. “They are limiting the impact of the block to only the local jurisdiction, trying to be transparent about which tweets are withheld, and at what government’s request,” Wong said.

Whether Twitter is trying to be thoughtful or not, opposition to the decision around the world was swift and negative, with many Twitter users protesting the decision. Journalists and human rights advocates, understandably, have raised serious concerns about Twitter’s decision. Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter to Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey asking him not to co-operate with censors.

We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board. By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.

We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Twitter has published an update to its post on the decision:

…we believe the new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability— and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal.

Q: Do you filter out certain Tweets before they appear on Twitter?
A: No. Our users now send a billion Tweets every four days—filtering is neither desirable nor realistic. With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request.

As we do today, we will evaluate each request before taking any action. Any content we do withhold in response to such a request is clearly identified to users in that country as being withheld. And we are now able to make that content available to users in the rest of the world.

The reaction from dissidents around the world has been particularly striking, given the potential impact of this decision upon their ability to speak out. As RSF noted, freedom of speech is part of the universal declaration of human rights. For many users or potential users, Twitter’s decision means that, while their speech will be preserved for the rest of the world to see, their fellow citizens may not. While this approach may be nuanced, the company can be fairly criticized for ever deciding to censor tweets at all. In the initial blog post on this decision, Twitter stated that the standards for free expression some countries “differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.”

Individuals and organizations within the broad coalition opposing SOPA due to concerns about freedom of expression online should find common cause with those who now would question Twitter’s decision to “exist” at all in countries whose governments do not respect the universal human rights of their citizens, as opposed to providing them with the means to share “what’s happening” with the rest of humanity.

The “Internet freedom” policies advanced by the U.S. Department of State under the Obama administration would, in theory, support that position as well. This is precisely the “dictator’s dilemma” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described. There should be a line where preserving principle is more important than opening new markets.

UPDATE: Writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eva Galperin considered what Twitter’s local takedown system would mean fro freedom of expression. She wrote a thoughtful, thorough post, including a note that Twitter has already been taking down content and echoing the opinion of others that the driver for the announcement is Twitter’s expansion to new countries with laws that govern freedom of expression, like Germany, where it will be bound by them. “Twitter is trying to mitigate these problems by only taking down access to content for people coming from IP addresses the country seeking to censor that content,” writes Galperin. “That’s good. For now, the overall effect is less censorship rather than more censorship, since they used to take things down for all users. But people have voiced concerns that ‘if you build it, they will come,’–if you build a tool for state-by-state censorship, states will start to use it. We should remain vigilant against this outcome.”

Galperin also offers specific actions that Twitter users concerned about the company’s actions can take, beyond protesting the move or leaving the platform all together:

Keep Twitter honest. First, pay attention to the notices that Twitter sends and to the archive being created on Chilling Effects. If Twitter starts honoring court orders from India to take down tweets that are offensive to the Hindu gods, or tweets that criticize the king in Thailand, we want to know immediately. Furthermore, transparency projects such as Chilling Effects allow activists to track censorship all over the world, which is the first step to putting pressure on countries to stand up for freedom of expression and put a stop to government censorship.

What else? Circumvent censorship. Twitter has not yet blocked a tweet using this new system, but when it does, that tweet will not simply disappear—there will be a message informing you that content has been blocked due to your geographical location. Fortunately, your geographical location is easy to change on the Internet. You can use a proxy or a Tor exit node located in another country. Read Write Web also suggests that you can circumvent per-country censorship by simply changing the country listed in your profile.

This post has been updated as further information or posts have become available.

4 reasons #40dollars resonated more with citizens on Twitter than #1000days

Yesterday, David Copeland reported at ReadWriteWeb that the GOP tried to replicate the success of the White House’s #40dollars social media campaign on Twitter with their own #1000days effort. As the Chicago Tribune reported, the GOP campaign sought to highlight an inauspicious milestone for the U.S. Senate. 1,000 since it passed a budget. Democrats, who control the Senate, last approved a budget in 2009.

Writes Copeland, “It’s clear that the digitial [sic] media campaigns had different goals, and #1000days was primarily aimed at emphasizing a point that was notably absent in President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. But if social media as it pertains to politics is truly about connecting with voters and constituents, score one for the Democrats.”

In this particular case, I mostly agree. The GOP’s efforts at gop.gov/sotu this year constituted an unprecedented use of the Web and social media by an opposition party to respond to a State of the Union, with smart integration of Twitter and YouTube. Citizens asked questions on the #GOPSOTU hashtag and Members of Congress responded using YouTube. As the Daily Dot reported, the #1000days hashtag has failed to spread beyond the Beltway. From what I’ve seen, the four reasons why #1000days hasn’t resonated in the same way break down into structural, tactical, and strategic issues:

1) Structural issue: Reach. Based upon the statistics I’ve seen, the @WhiteHouse has much more reach than than any single other “governance” account on Twitter. The GOP caucus in Congress, former Massachusetts governor@MittRomney and the @Heritage Foundation do have, in aggregate, an even or greater number of engaged followers. That said, the @BarackObama campaign account, which amplified the #40dollars conversation, has far greater reach, if lower engagement. Both metrics matter, in terms of the ability to involving and focusing more citizens in a given conversation around a #hashtag at a given time.

2) Tactical issue: Timing. The #1000days campaign was launched during the #SOTU, when the attention of politically engaged Americans was fractured between paying attention to the President’s speech itself, watching online (3m+ visits to wh.gov/sotu), reading the media organizations competing to report or fact check on the speech online, watching the TV networks and, of course, talking to one another.

3) Strategic issue: Adaptability. Agreeing upon and passing a budget is a fundamental, basic issue for the operations of any business, organization or government entity. Congress and the Obama administration have cobbled together a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills to fund itself over the past 3 years. While many Americans have to make and live by budgets in their personal lives and businesses, however, the #1000days campaign may be both too abstract and too constrained to a single message. The question about #40dollars, by contrast, asked citizens what it means to them, which is concrete, personal and invites creative answers.

4) Tactical issue: Engagement and Amplification. As Copeland reports, “Ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans started tweeting using the hashtag #1000days to accent the amount of time since Senate Democrats passed a federal budget.”

On Tuesday night, the top tweets for a search of the #1000days hashtag come from @MittRomney and Republican politicians. Neither Romney nor @SenJohnMcCain had retweeted any followers who have used the hashtag. @SpeakerBoehner has primarily retweeted the @GOPconference or other members of his caucus. The Heritage Foundation has only retweeted its own staff. That pattern is replicated throughout other participating accounts.

The @WhiteHouse, in contrast, continued its practice of resharing tweets from Twitter users who joined the conversation, sharing the voices of citizens with one another, not just other politicians. There’s a good lesson in this successful use to of Twitter that should extend well beyond citizen engagement and open government circles. One campaign amplified the messages of the representatives, the other channeled the voices of constituents responding to their elected issues on on a given issue back through the accounts coordinating the effort.

As I pointed out last year in an article on social media, politics and influence, it’s of note that the operators of the @WhiteHouse Twitter account now routinely natively retweet other accounts participating in #WHchats. While some of these Tweets will leave followers without context for the Tweet, the White House appears to have shifted its online strategy to one of engagement versus the lower risk style broadcasting that most politicians adopt online. To date, many of the president’s political opponents have not followed suit.

The challenges of these four issues look validated by the results to date: some 6,000 tweets per hour for #40dollars at the height of the campaign, as Ed O’Keefe wrote at the Washington Post. Keefe, on a talk on Monday, given by Kori Schulman, White House deputy director for digital strategy, “by 5 p.m., #40dollars was trending worldwide, Schulman said, and the hashtag was generating about 6,000 tweets per hour. At the height of the push, WhiteHouse.gov received about 5,000 responses per hour to the question.” In total, Schulman said the #40dollars campaign “generated 70,000 tweets, 46,000 submissions via the White House Web site, 10,000 related Facebook posts and contributions from 126,000 users.”

By way of contrast, according to the numbers in Topsy, the #1000days campaign has generated 3,862 tweets in the past week.

Agree? Disagree? What am I missing here.

Laptops, smartphones and social media allowed in U.S. House press gallery

The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.

In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”

Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.

“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”

It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.

“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”

Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”

Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”

As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.

Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.

“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.

If Twitter is against SOPA and PIPA, should it ‘blackout’ like Wikipedia?

As Wikipedia prepares to go dark in protest, prospects for controversial online anti-piracy laws have dimmed in Congress. Now that Wikipedia has committed to such a bold move, will other tech, blogs or media companies follow? In some cases, the answers is clearly yes: Reddit and BoingBoing, for instance, have both said that they’ll be doing a ‘blackout.”

Online pressure to rethink anti-piracy bills that threaten the Internet industries, security and online free speech continues to build, although, as the New York Times reported, many still expect these online piracy bills invite a protracted battle. There are, as it turns out, quite a few people willing to stand up to these bills.

As I wrote in December, one of the big unanswered questions about the Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act, is whether Internet companies would directly engage hundreds of millions of users to advocate against the bill for them in Washington, in the way that Tumblr did last November. To date, Facebook and Google have not committed to doing so.

Today, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo indicated to me that the California-based social media company that he leads will not being ‘shutting down’ on Wednesday — but that it would also continue to be ‘very active.’ The Guardian has picked up on our exchange, publishing a story that focused upon mischaracterized Costolo’s response to a question about Twitter shutting down as him calling Wikipedia’s SOPA protest as ‘silly.’ What Costolo made clear later when Wales asked him about the story, however, is that he was referring to Twitter making such a choice, not Wikipedia.

Following is a storify of the relevant tweets, along with some context for them.

My sense is that, of all of the major social media players — which in 2012 now include Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Tumblr and MySpace, amongst others — Twitter has been one of the leaders in the technology community for sticking up for its users where it can, particularly with respect to the matter of fighting to make Twitter subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department regarding user data public.

Whether or not Twitter ultimately decides to “shut down” or “black out,” Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray deserves all due credit for that decision and others, along with the lucid blog post that explained how SOPA would affect ordinary, non-infringing users.

For a fuller explanation of why these issues stuff matters, I highly recommend reading “Consent of the Networked,” a new must-read book on Internet freedom by former CNN journalist and co-founder of Global Voices Rebecca MacKinnon. These sorts of decisions and precedents are deeply important in the 21st century, when much of what people think of as speech in the new public square is hosted upon the servers of private services like Twitter, Facebook and Google.

This post has been updated to clarify Costolo’s position, with respect to how the Guardian framed his initial response.

#AskState: U.S. State Department to take questions from Twitter at the podium

Under Secretary McHale Participates in the State Department's First Global "Twitter Q&A"
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith Mchale, center, participates in the State Department's first global Twitter Q & A, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2011.

As part of what it is calling “21st Century Statecraft Month,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland will be taking questions from Twitter from up at the podium during the Daily Press Briefing each Friday afternoon during the month of January. Questions can be submitted using the #AskState hashtag.

The questions will be selected from the Department’s 10 official Twitter feeds, which now include tweets in Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu:

Whether this is a public relations exercise or another step towards the next generation of digital public diplomacy will depend upon whether State is willing to directly take on its fiercest critics, a constituency that will likely be active on the #askstate hashtag.

While this is an interesting experiment, it’s important to note that the State Department will still be choosing which questions to answer. In a press briefing, Nuland can choose the questioner but not the question. If Nuland would commit to taking the 3 most retweeted questions, say, that would be one thing. Here, they can be selective. For instance, if asked about the Wikileaks saga, sales of American surveillance gear to foreign governments or past State Department involvement in South America, will they take the questions?

There’s also the quiet reality that P.J. Crowley, the former state department spokesman, was (and is) quite active on Twitter as @PJCrowley during his tenure. As far as I know, Nuland doesn’t have an account, which effectively means they’re doing less of that particular brand of 21st century digital diplomacy, not more. @JaredCohen, who has moved on to Google, is similarly no longer a voice for ‘digital diplomacy’ on Twitter, leaving the mantle of being State’s primary “face” on social media on the shoulders of @AlecJRoss, although, to be fair, dozens of other staffers, embassies and officials are on Twitter now as well, from @USMariaOtero to UN @AmbassadorRice.

I’ve posed a question about the State Department’s official stance on the Stop Online Piracy Act, since its passage would seem very likely to directly impact its Internet freedom policy and funding for circumvention technologies. If State takes the question, they’d post it on their YouTube channel.

Below, I’ve embedded a Storify that includes a sample of many other questions that have been asked to date:

How should Regulations.gov be using social media?

The Internet offers new opportunities to involve the public in regulatory rulemaking, including industry, media, nonprofits and citizens. A new social layer for the Web has shifted what’s possible in open government forward again, both hosting and enabling conversations. Below, one of those conversations is captured using the social media curation tool, Storify.

This (Social Network) We’ll Defend: US Army releases new social media handbook

File under “awesome” on a busy morning: receiving an email from the United States Army with a classification “UNCLASSIFIED” and caveats: NONE. Brittany Brown, social media manager for the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, writes in to share the news that the @USArmy has released a revised social media handbook:

As a follow up to your Jan. 20 article entitled “Department of Defense: access to Internet-based capabilities is critical, despite risks,”, I am happy to announce that we just released a second edition of the U.S. Army Handbook.

The new edition of the U.S. Army Social Media Handbook includes an expanded operations security (OPSEC) section, a section about blogging and Army Strong Stories and a section discussing how to manage fake Facebook pages and social media imposters. In addition to the new sections, we’ve also included a quick reference guide for both Facebook and Twitter and a 10-page social media glossary.

Social Media Handbook 2011

View more documents from U.S. Army

The Army’s handbook has much in common with the US Navy social media handbook, although there’s no handy tagline for me to add on like “loose tweets sink fleets.” Both guides offer common sense advice that’s clearly worth repeating: don’t post geolocated updates about your unit’s movements or other information that could be of use to enemy combatants or criminals.

What Brown highlights out regarding guidance on imposter accounts, however, is significant. According to the guide, “the practice of impersonating soldiers for financial gain is significant.” The same phishing activity that targets the rest of the users on social networks is a problem for the military as well. Beyond that, there’s every reason to believe that impersonations are also a vector for gathering information that can be used to spear phish more sensitive intelligence. Caveat tweeter.