Experts see double standard in U.S. Twitter arrest

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An arrest of a New Yorker for using Twitter to alert anti-capitalist protesters at the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh to police movements would be deemed a human rights violation if it happened in Iran or China and raises free speech concerns, experts and rights activists say.

A line of policemen blocks the street during a protest march during the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania September 25, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Pittsburgh police arrested Elliot Madison, 41, on September 24, the first day of a meeting of leaders from the G20 rich and developing nations, and accused him of using the online social networking site to help protesters avoid apprehension.

Anti-capitalist protesters used Twitter, which allows people to publish 140-character text messages on the Internet, and cell phone text messages to organise rallies during the two-day meeting, clashing on several occasions with police.

“The same conduct in Iran or China during recent demonstrations would be called human right violations whereas here it’s called necessary crime control,” Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told Reuters. “It’s a real double standard.”

Twitter became a key form of communication in Iran amid the protests and clampdown that followed the country’s disputed June elections. The U.S. State Department even urged Twitter to delay a planned upgrade that would have cut service to Iran.

China has blocked access to online sites such as Twitter several times, including in May ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and again in July following ethnic unrest in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

But the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs Voice of America, is covertly testing technology in Iran and China that lets residents break through Internet censorship imposed up by their governments.

Laura DeNardis, executive director of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, said the arrest of Madison could be used “by repressive countries who may be looking to crack down on technologies.”

“They might cite this as a justification for thwarting free speech in even more direct ways and for cracking down in cases like we saw in the Iranian election protests,” said DeNardis. “To me this seems like a double standard.”

“I’m sure that we’ll see this replicated and cited as a justification for much more repressive activity in other parts of the (United States),” she said.

Madison was arrested in a Pittsburgh motel, but authorities raided his home in the New York City borough of Queens on Thursday and his lawyer Martin Stolar went to Brooklyn Federal Court on Friday to ask for the return of property taken.

“It’s an outrageous use of criminal law to punish dissent, to punish speech, which tends to support dissent, and it is the most unique application of the criminal law to the use of Twitter that I have ever seen,” said Stolar.

“Essentially we have Elliot accused of taking publicly available information and giving it to another person in the public and then being charged with a crime for doing so,” he said. “I’m missing something here.”

The Pittsburgh Police criminal complaint said Madison used Twitter to direct protesters so they could avoid arrest and to inform them of police movements and actions.

The case could also have repercussions for the media, experts and activists say.

“It has the potential to discourage free speech,” said Walczak. “In this age of instant media coverage it has the potential to chill live reporting. This is just the rebroadcasting of information that’s otherwise publicly available, not too different from what the media were doing.”

Editing by Mark Egan