Policing Twitter: arrest of G-20 protester shows double standard

During last month's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, police in riot gear openly clashed with protesters on the city's streets. Protesters were arrested for offenses one can expect at a large demonstration – lobbing rocks at police cruisers, failing to comply with orders to disperse and the like. Yet one of the most highly publicized arrest made during these protests was not due to activities on the streets, but on the web.

Elliot Madison, a social worker from New York, was arrested in Pittsburgh on September 24th and charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime. Madison worked with a group called the Tin Can Comms Collective to provide communications support to protesters, connecting them to medical services, coordinating actions and informing them of police actions. Though this information is publicly available, Pennsylvania state police say that Madison and his colleagues aided protesters in avoiding arrest by informing them of orders to disperse via Twitter. (Find Tin Can Comms main Pittsburgh G-20 summit Twitter feed here .)

This strikes many as a curious, if not deeply disturbing, turn of events, as many Americans supported the subversive “tweets” coming out of Iran as the government there blocked many other forms of communication. In fact, our State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled site maintenance so that service to the Iranian protesters would not be interrupted. The ironies are too clear to ignore, but that is only part of the story. This arrest sets a dangerous precedent in our country's emerging narrative of social action and social media. While tools from Twitter to text messages have become a powerful way for grassroots activists to organize and communicate in real time, it clearly had equal potential to become a tool for just as quickly quashing legitimate exercises of free speech.

Commentators are currently predicting that Madison's case could be used as justification for oppressive governments to more openly limit citizens' access to communications tools. Yet Pennsylvania police aren't just setting an example for lawmakers and law enforcement halfway across the world, but also for those right here in the U.S. Twitter and other social media hold this very real potential to aid law enforcement in criminalizing protest and free speech.

(For more information on Madison's activities with Tin Can Comms and his arrest, see this interview he did with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!)

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey