Social Media and censorship: is Twitter cutting its own wings?



twitter censorship

In recent days it has been reported that Twitter will censor tweets in order to grow in countries without freedom of speech/non-democratic. This new approach, which Twitter made public on its official blog, allows the company to block tweets or users on a country-by-country basis.

When I read this news on the internet, my reaction was similar to the one the famous Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas had:

blog censorship

The announcement has created fear and controversy about the possible censorship of a medium that has been used to promote democracy, express views and organize riots.

The worldwide reactions were immediate: Reporters Without Borders wrote a letter to Twitter calling the new policy “local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards.”

The announcement also prompted many Twitter users to boycott the service on Saturday 28th of January. Hashtags such as #censuratwitter and #twitterblackout became trending topic in several countries.

#twitterblackout

Would the new policy have allowed Egyptians to organize protests using the service? Could these changes damage the usefulness of Twitter in authoritarian countries? Twitter has been the free-speech wing of the free-speech party and its policy of allowing its users to adopt pseudonyms made it very useful to many protest organizers in the Arab world.

It seems that Twitter has to decide whether to be a tool of freedom of speech that can be used to challenge governments or a normal company that obeys the laws of the countries in order to make more money (growing in nations that practice censorship, like China).

To make the new policy possible, the San Francisco company has announced its alliance with Chilling Effects (a project of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Universities of Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley, among others).

The page chillingeffects.org will publish all complaints Twitter will receive from governments and authorities to remove messages from users.

But why is Twitter, the social networking site that helped fuel the Arab revolutions, adopting this policy?

In order to ask this question, ask yourself: can Twitter ignore the laws of the countries in which it operates? I don’t think so and it does not depend on Twitter. Internet experts know that Google currently removes search results by court order. Facebook also handles requests to remove content that is illegal in certain countries, although it does not explain what it removes and for what reason. YouTube can block content country by country as well. Internet companies obey the laws of the ‘real world’ and Twitter can’t be the exception.

Twitter wants to expand its business and plans to open an office in Germany, so the company gave as example of restrictions that it will ban pro-Nazi content. They have no choice if they want to open global offices.

Shortly after the controversy began, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (an international non-profit digital rights advocacy) said that Twitter’s announcement is good news, since it minimizes the ‘censorship’ imposed by various laws and regulations countries.

How is this possible? Twitter won’t filter tweets before they are published (it is impossible, as around 250 million tweets are published per day). The company will only retain the content when required by a legal requirement and the process will always be transparent. The best part, according to me, is that they will delete the message ONLY in the affected country. Previously, blocking tweets had to be done globally, meaning that if an oppressive regime asked Twitter to remove a tweet or block a user, it had to be done for everyone in the world. Now, Twitter can remove that tweet in that country, but allows the rest of the world to see it.

Twitter, like other Internet companies, has always had to remove content that is illegal in one country or another (e.g. Twitter received over 4,000 requests last year to remove links, related to copyright law in the United States, DMCA). So what has changed? Technology and transparency.

For example: if someone in Mexico posts a message that mentions something punishable by a jail term, it will be blocked and unavailable to Twitter users in that country, but still visible elsewhere. Moreover, Twitter users in Mexico will be put on notice that something was removed. A box will show up in its place, with a note: Tweet withheld. This tweet from @username has been withheld in: Mexico.

tweet withheld

My main concern is that Twitter  could no longer be a pro-democracy and pro-human rights tool in oppressive countries. Twitter has become the world’s largest monitoring citizen networking. Twitter is a vital platform for citizens in countries where freedom of speech is often bounded and democracy is weak, such as my country, Mexico: let’s think about what people do to protect themselves from the drug war.

However, there are good news. Twitter insists its new system is a way to promote greater transparency because:

  • It should become easier for activists to monitor which countries are censoring their citizens thanks to Chilling Effects.
  • If a government asks Twitter to remove an offending tweet, the company has two options: comply and block that single tweet or user in that country -while still allowing the rest of the world to see-, or refuse and take the risk that the government itself blocks Twitter for everyone in that country. The first option seems better for activists…
  • Twitter tells its users how to get around its censors. For example: Twitter users know the company identifies their locations by looking at the Internet Protocol addresses of their computers or phones. But it also allows users to manually set their location or choose ‘worldwide’, allowing to circumvent the blocking system entirely. A user in Egypt can simply change his location setting to ‘worldwide’ and see everything.
  • Activists are clever and smart: last year in Libya opposition leaders used coded messages on dating sites to avoid detection. Twitter won’t just block a user every time a government asks it. Activists should still be able to communicate on the network, assuming their tweets don’t break local laws. I’m sure, people will get around this! In my opinion, Twitter just needs to be careful to remain helpful to rebellions against oppressive governments.

We do not know what it’s going to happen, we can only guess: how is Twitter going to apply this policy? How are they going to please the regimes? How would they react on a country-by-country basis?

Twitter is also a business and has to run like one. As any company, they want to make more money. As of now, their revenue is around $150 million a year. In order to do so, Twitter will increase its presence and offices in other countries. Twitter generates a huge mass of data every single day and lots of brands and businesses are willing to pay for it.

The company is trying to grow up and has to become more accountable in different jurisdictions and not just in the USA. It’s a reality: we have different nations and separate laws, and it’s going to be really hard to have a global internet.

Jessica Noguez



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