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Twittering the G20 Iranian Style

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U.S. law enforcement
appears to be reading from a playbook perfected in the streets of Tehran. In
the wake of protests last week at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, the police
arrested
a self-professed anarchist for using the social-networking site
Twitter to coordinate communications among G20 summit protesters, and direct
them away from police positions. The charge for this exercise of free
speech: the criminal uses of a communications facility, in this case a computer
and a Twitter feed. 

According to news reports,
the arrest was followed up by an FBI raid of the man’s house in Queens, NY,
where they seized computers, phones, black masks, newspapers, books and
pictures of Lenin and Marx (yes, pictures) looking for evidence of additional
crimes.

The last time I checked,
urging people to protest isn't a crime in the United States; using Twitter to
urge people to protest isn't a crime in the U.S.; and it's certainly not a
crime to observe a protest and direct protesters away from the police.  In fact, all these activities are the
very essence of the foundation of our First Amendment.  By all available accounts, there does
not appear to be any evidence that the content of the tweets were intended or
indeed likely to incite anyone to imminent violence or law- breaking or to
engage in other speech that falls outside of First Amendment protection. Rather
they were intended to help protesters avoid police after an order for the crowd
to disperse. I doubt the police would have arrested anyone for standing on a
corner with a microphone directing the crowd. Yet the same message delivered
via Twitter is now apparently a crime.

This case runs thick with
irony.  During the recent Iranian
election protests, the U.S. State Department specifically asked the folks at
Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance that would have shut down the service,
in order to ensure that the Iranian protestors had access to their most vital
communications link. Twitter was used to organize protests, direct protesters
away from police and warn them of danger. Twitter also enabled young Iranians
to become citizen journalists, bearing witness to the world of the events
unfolding on the streets.  The
Twitter-er who was arrested in Pittsburgh was doing the exact same thing that
that the U.S. government was trying to facilitate in Iran.

A Federal District judge
in New York has ordered authorities to stop examining the items gathered in the
search until more of the facts can be sorted out. But the damage has surely
been done.

The next time protestors
take to the streets of Tehran or Beijing, armed with cell phones and Twitter
accounts, we should not be surprised when countries crack down hard on those
tweeting the revolution and point to Pittsburgh as a precedent. And America
will be relegated to the sidelines, rendered mute by our own foolish actions.

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