Twitter’s new censorship policy

Twitter’s plans to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis led to an angry backlash by users. Judith Bruhn looks at the microblog’s policy in more detail.

Twitter’s announcement on 26 January 2012 that it had successfully developed technology that would allow it to block tweets on country-by-country basis was met with an international outcry. Netizens from around the world condemned the microblog’s decision to comply with censorship requests.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei denounced the policy, saying he would stop using Twitter altogether if the company started to censor tweets. Cuba’s opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted that she would protest this action through a personal one-day blackout on Saturday 28 January. “It is we citizens who will end up losing with these new rules,” she tweeted.

Why block tweets at all? For legal reasons is the answer Twitter has been giving. As a company, Twitter is obliged to abide by national law and has been doing so all along. Removing individual tweets is not new to the microblog. To comply with regulations the company has been blocking tweets (such as spam or child pornography) – and even completely deleting them in response to DMCA requests relating to copyright infringements. Many of these requests have been published on Chilling Effects. Twitter intends to continue this practice to facilitate more transparency about its policy.

Twitter’s General Counsel Alexander Macgilliviray pointed out that, “There is no change in policy. What this does is it strengthens, when we are legally required to, our ability to withhold something and to let people know it has been withheld.”

Different countries have different laws and a company working within a country’s jurisdiction has to abide by them. The Twitter blog states that tweets will only be withheld “in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request”.

Twitter’s approach to the varying legal requirements and censorship in different countries seems a reasonable attempt to tackle the issue; infused with the promise of transparency it is doing a lot better than other companies such as Facebook, whose deletion and blocking policy is not as transparent.

Concerns, however, remain. Tweeters in the Arab world have voiced similar opinions as their colleagues in other parts of the world. Moroccan pro-democracy blogger Larbi Hilali expressed his concern that, “If it is applied, there will be a Twitter for democratic countries and a Twitter for the others.”

In a way, this strikes at the heart of one of the big issues: do we accept that different countries have different laws and requirements as well as their implications for freedom of speech locally, globally and for service providers like Twitter? Or should we all share the same freedom, limits and laws when it comes to freedom of expression? Have a look at the discussions on our site and share your views.

Is it really the responsibility of multinational companies to challenge national laws limiting free expression? Maybe not, but they certainly have the potential to facilitate debate, resistance and even change within authoritarian states.

Blocked, not censored – is Paul Smalera’s crucial distinction. Individual tweets are not deleted, they are only withheld in a particular country while the rest of the world can still see them. Overall this should result in less being withheld rather than more. While this may deny the content of the tweet, the message of protest can still be communicated through the little grey box, indicating that the tweet has been blocked.

While this sounds good in theory, in practice most tweets are directed towards a specific audience. Especially in the case of dissident communication, protest blogging and microblogging a censored page left blank, or a grey box stating that a tweet has been withheld, only go so far as a form of expression. If tweets of protestors or dissidents are withheld it does rob them of a powerful way of communication. If those for whom the tweets are primarily intended do not have access to them, Twitter has lost its function as a tool to organise in authoritarian regimes.

In a New York Times article, Tim Wu questions whether the new policy would have allowed Egyptians to organise protests using the service. The answer probably depends on the degree of government concern with the tweets and requests that they be taken down. As Wu points out, another tool may be needed to replace Twitter if protesters cannot use its service to organise protests.

This, of course, only becomes an issue once Twitter opens an office in different countries, as it will only then be obliged to comply with a country’s laws. In the future it will be interesting to see how many tweets Twitter is asked to take down, and what it considers a valid legal request. In some countries this will be straightforward as limits to freedom of speech are formulated and fixed in law. In other countries, such as China, where restrictions are fluid, it might be more difficult to discern. Whatever happens, Twitter’s decisions will be closely watched over the next few years and moves to prioritise profit and expansion over its role as a conduit of free speech may well be its undoing.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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