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New Twitter Policy Leads To Misguided Cries Of Censorship

Earlier this week, Twitter announced on its blog that it now had the ability to block message from appearing in users timelines based on what country they lived in. In the post, the company said that it had developed this policy in response to laws in other nations that restrict the content of speech and threaten to expose the company to liability. Not surprisingly, this led to a swift and severe response from users, especially those based in Western countries:

The whole episode, swiftly amplified worldwide through Twitter itself, offered a telling glimpse into what happens when a scrappy Internet start-up tries to become a multinational business.

“Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends,” wrote Björn Nilsson, a user in Sweden.

Bianca Jagger asked, almost existentially, “How are we going to boycott #TWITTER?”

Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took the other side. “I’m defending Twitter’s policy because it is the one I hope others adopt: transparent, minimally compliant w/ law, user-empowering,” she wrote.

Twitter, like other Internet companies, has always had to remove content that is illegal in one country or another, whether it is a copyright violation, child pornography or something else. What is different about Twitter’s announcement is that it plans to redact messages only in those countries where they are illegal, and only if the authorities there make a valid request.

So if someone posts a message that insults the monarchy of Thailand, which is punishable by a jail term, it will be blocked and unavailable to Twitter users in that country, but still visible elsewhere. What is more, Twitter users in Thailand will be put on notice that something was removed: A gray box will show up in its place, with a clear note: “Tweet withheld,” it will read. “This tweet from @username has been withheld in: Thailand.”

Think of it as the digital equivalent of a newspaper responding to old-fashioned government censorship with a blank front page.

“We have always had the obligation to remove illegal content. This is a way to keep it up in places where we can,” said Alex Macgillivray, general counsel at Twitter. “We have been working on this awhile. We needed to figure out how to deal with this as a company.”

The majority of Twitter’s 100 million users are overseas and it has several offices abroad working to expand its business and drum up local advertising. Twitter’s president, Jack Dorsey, said this week that it would open an office in Germany, which prohibits Nazi material online and offline.

The announcement signals the choice that a service like Twitter has to make about its own existence: Should it be more of a free-speech tool that can be used in defiance of governments, as happened during the Arab Spring protests, or a commercial venture that necessarily must obey the laws of the lands where it seeks to attract customers and eventually make money?

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of “The Master Switch,” said the changes could undermine the usefulness of Twitter in authoritarian countries.

“I don’t fault them for wanting to run a normal business,” he said. “It does suggest someone or something else needs to take Twitter’s place as a political tool.”

Professor Wu urged the company to use discretion: “Twitter needs to be careful not to be in a position where it’s no longer helpful to a rebellion against oppressive governments. It needs to remain its old self in some circumstances.”

Twitter’s policy of allowing its users to adopt pseudonyms made it particularly useful to many protest organizers in the Arab world, and its chief executive went so far as to call it “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

But Professor Wu wondered aloud if the new policy would have allowed Egyptians to organize protests using the service.

Interestingly, this list of complaints to Twitter seems to indicate that most if not all of the Complaints that they’ve gotten regarding content have been regarding copyright violations, not complaints by foreign governments regarding violations of their law. Additionally, if people in a country like Egypt are using the Internet in the manner Wu describes, it’s more likely that the government in question will simply respond the way that Egypt did when it shut down access to the Internet, not to mention the ability to make international phone calls, during the height of the Tahrir Square protests. It seems unlikely that a country facing protests is going to take the time to make a complaint to a company in California.

Nonetheless, Twitter users in the United States and other countries where government are unlikely to ever take any punitive action against the service seem to have adopted this as their Outrage Of The Day. Many are apparently engaging in some kind of Twitter Blackout protest today, not using the service at all in response to a policy that will never really impact them. What that accomplishes, I’m not entirely sure. Yes, this policy does have the ring of some of the concessions that Google and other countries have made to nations like China in recent years. However, this isn’t quite so simple an issue and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York notes on her personal blog that everyone really just needs to calm down about this:

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.

(…)

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.

This strikes me as the most reasonable way of looking at things. If we lived in a world where every nation had as much respect for freedom of speech as the United States, this wouldn’t be a problem. We don’t, however, and the Internet is now a worldwide phenomenon. Something that’s perfectly legal in the United States could be a serious crime elsewhere. For example, it’s a crime in Thailand to insult the King. Just last month, an American of Thai decent was sentenced to 30 months in prison for insulting the King of Thailand in an Internet post he authored while living in the United States. If Twitter, or Facebook, is threatened with legal liability for allowing people in Thailand to view such material how are they supposed to respond? The same question applies if, say, neo-Nazi content is posted and the government of Germany, where such content is against the law, demands that it be taken down. What’s the proper response? These are companies with hundreds of employees and, in Facebook’s case in the very near future, soon to be thousands of shareholders. Endangering the corporation’s interests for the sake of principles simply isn’t realistic.

Zeynep Tufekci argues that the new policy is actually meant to protect freedom of speech:

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.

(…)

Twitter can’t fight all free speech battles by itself; and it can’t change laws or governments around the world, nor can it ignore issues of jurisdiction. In particular, if faced with a court order that requires Twitter to identify dissidents in a country where torture or severe repression is in place, I hope Twitter first makes this as public as possible, and then choses to pull out of that country rather than comply (as Yahoo did in the shameful case of Wang Xiaoning and others in China – and some these people remain in prison after almost a decade).

There is a lot more to be said about the dangers of centralization, the emergence of corporate platforms as larger and larger portions of our political and social commons, and the conflicts between control, profit motives, and free and civic speech these recent developments raise. I don’t want to sound like I am happy to trust a few corporations and that’s it. On the contrary, I’ve repeatedly tried to warn against these dangers. All that said, I don’t think it is helpful if we don’t recognize a good policy when we see one.

Those last points are the most important, perhaps. Businesses in the United States cannot be held responsible for the laws of China, or Thailand, or any other nation, and they have to do the best they can to exist in the world as it exists, not the world as we’d like it to be.

There’s another point, of course. All of these companies are private entities and none of us are compelled to use their services. If you don’t like the policies that they’ve adopted, you can take your business elsewhere. In the end, this isn’t censorship, it’s a perfectly valid business decision.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. rudderpedals says:

    I was with you up until the last (throwaway? Or most essential?) paragraph. It is patently censhorship. It’s just not a 1st Amendment issue.

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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    onetheless, Twitter users in the United States and other countries where government are unlikely to ever take any punitive action against the service seem to have adopted this as their Outrage Of The Day.

    We live in a country where they tap our phones without cause and reserve the right to put a missile through our window if we’re bad. Why on earth wouldn’t our government censor our Twitter accounts?

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  3. As a purely practical matter, it’s a good idea to obey the laws of any jursidiction that has the ability to “get” you.

    However, to argue that there is a moral obligation to obey laws, regardless of the content of those laws, just because they’re laws is bullshit. Twitters action here may be in the best interests of it’s shareholders, but it remains an act of moral cowardice, and it’s right for people to call them on it.

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  4. John Burgess says:

    I completely agree, Doug. Twitter cannot be charged with censorship because only governments can actually censor. Others can refrain from taking actions that put them in legal jeopardy. If you want to call that ‘self-censorship’, well go right ahead. But it’s awfully tough to be effective when you’re behind bars.

    I wrote it up as Twitter & Censorship at Crossroads Arabia.

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