The internet was alive with chatter on Friday in response to Twitter’s announcement that it was making a change in the extent to which it restricts content. The change means that content that violates the laws of an individual state will be blocked. Given the nature of the average Twitter user (generally opposed to censorship) and the impact the use of Twitter has had in a range ofdespotic regimes across the world, it was not surprising that there was uproar about this announcement. Such was the uproar, there were threats of widespread blackouts as people announced their intentions to boycott the service. Judging by the volume of tweets, it appears that this didn’t really take hold.
However, as Twitter’s blog explained, things were a little more complicated than they initially appeared:
As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.
In an update it went on to add:
We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.
Which appears to make the policy a little more understandable. Indeed, a number of blog posts were subsequently published which argued that not only was the position taken by Twitter reasonable, it was also a victory for defenders of free speech. As one blog put it:
The alternative would be to see Twitter blocked entirely in countries which consider its content to be a violation of their local laws. If the finger should be pointed at anyone, it isn’t Twitter, but rather the lawmakers that make it possible to censor content in the first place.
So is it really an issue? Should Twitter really be the target of a boycott?
It’s a tricky issue to get right. Ultimately, the medium should be as lightly managed as possible, ensuring people can tweet freely and share information readily. As has been seen in a number of cases, the impact of such freedom can have a positive impact upon our society. But, of course, as with all freedom of speech issues, there are concerns and grey areas that need to be wrestled with.
So how do we resolve such issues? Surely our viewpoint on censorship ultimately comes down to our own personal moral compass? Do we believe that censorship is ultimately acceptable if the laws that the tweet breaks are only those we are sympathetic towards? Would we be more inclined towards censorship if the content was gratuitously offensive to an ethnic minority than if it was content that is adjudged to be libellous to a large corporation? Both would be in breach of the law, but is one easier than the other to justify?
Personally speaking, I firmly believe in the right to free speech. I broadly believe that people should not be prosecuted for what they communicate. But there difficult areas, and I am not really sure I have come to terms with them myself. I absolutely believe that racist content should be removed. But I am less sympathetic towards censorship of libellous tweets aimed at large corporations. And yet both are subject to criminal prosecution. Perhaps my view on censorship would be best summed up as a necessary evil if it defends the interests of the powerless or the weak, but absolutely avoided if it seeks to defend the interests of the powerful. It’s not a satisfactory response to freedom of speech issues, but it’s the best I can come up with.
In terms of Twitter, I am not sure that this policy is a wholly bad thing, although it is probably best to see how things play out before rushing to judgement (although is that even a satisfactory response?). Clearly it ensures that those in repressive regimes actually get access to the technology rather than endure a blanket ban. It also ensures that tweets are only blocked according to location, so outside of that locality the tweets would be entirely visible – ensuring that in the case of repressive regimes the content still makes it out to the wider world. This location aspect is certainly superior to some other methods utilised to control content. As Zeynep Tufekci points out on her excellent post on this issue, Blogger is currently censoring a post on brutality conduced by security forces in Egypt. This post is currently blocked globally without any indication as to the cause of its removal (unlike the policy that Twitter announced – which will supposedly ensure transparency over removal). Furthermore, there is a commitment to only block content based on a ‘valid legal order’ which should ensure a degree of protection, providing Twitter doesn’t cave in to spurious government requests for removal.
So, overall I would say that whilst this move is not the most welcome news, I’m not so sure it is quite as regressive as it first appears. I think the people at Twitter are smart enough to know that if censorship does become a major issue for users they will just move some place else. It seems to me that they have tried to strike a middle ground ensuring it can protect itself from prosecution (after all, that would lead to the closure of the service for all) and ensure that content is relatively unaffected. That said, this will need be monitored closely and, if there are attempts to cave into requests by government to censor content without ensuring that valid legal orders are applied, then the strongest possible pressure should be applied to ensure censorship on such grounds is no longer an option. Time will tell whether this move by Twitter amounts to an attack on free speech or a smart way to defend it.