Will New Censorship Practices Change Twitter’s Revolutionary Potential?
Even as scholars and activists are considering the role Twitter played in last year’s uprisings, Twitter itself is changing in ways that might make its use as a tool of revolution obsolete, or at least substantively different.
Reuter reported Jan 26 that Twitter can now censor messages on a country-by-country basis.The story was based on a blog post on Twitter’s official site Jan. 26.
In the past, if a Tweet defies the laws of a country in which Twitter operates, and the company is notified, it will censor the tweet. If it doesn’t, and it has employees in that country, they could face arrest. Censored tweets vanished throughout the world.
But with the new technology, the tweet could be taken down in the country where it is illegal, and still appear elsewhere in the world.
Twitter is not yet using the technology, and it usually only censors tweets that violate the US’s very broad freedom of speech laws–which means most of the Tweets it currently censors have to do with child pornography. And of course, Twitter abides by takedown notices from Hollywood and the recording industry that looks to me to amount to as much as a half-dozen a day.
“As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” the post said, pointing out that pro-Nazi content is banned in Germany, and would presumably have to be censored.
The blog assures consumers that it would continue to post all the removal requests it receives from governments, companies and individuals at the website chillingeffects.org, just as it currently does.
Nonetheless, one can see the difficulty–if the Mubarak regime had been able to successfully request the censorship of tweets, the everyday organization of communication among many leaders of the revolution would have been quite different.
An AP story on resistance to the proposal quotes a tweet by blogger Sandmonket:
“This is very bad news,” tweeted Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem, who operates under the name Sandmonkey. Later, he wrote, “Is it safe to say that (hash)Twitter is selling us out?”
The same article cites Reporters Without Borders:
Reporters Without Borders, which advocates globally for press freedom, sent a letter to Twitter’s executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, urging that the censorship policy be ditched immediately.
“By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization,” the letter said. “Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is unacceptable.”
Reporters Without Borders noted that Twitter was earning praise from free-speech advocates a year ago for enabling Egyptian dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected.
“We are very disappointed by this U-turn now,” it said.
An article in Wired on-line quotes a continuum of criticism from those who see this as an ordinary business decision
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which typically has no patience with any sort of censorship, saw Twitter’s announcement as little more than stating the obvious. ”I’m a little puzzled by the kind of freak out that kind of appears to be happening. Companies have to abide by the law where they are,” said Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the digital rights group.
to those who see Twitter as becoming an agent of government censorship:
The ACLU wasn’t as forgiving. ”The countries that engage in censorship are precisely the ones in which open and neutral social media platforms are most critical,” said Aden Fine, an ACLU staff attorney. “We hope Twitter will think carefully before acceding to any specific requests by those governments to censor content simply because they want to interfere with their citizens’ access to information and ideas.”
The real culprit here is Twitter’s vast expansion plans. Twitter currently hopes to increase its worldwide usage from about 100 million to more than one billion. That’s going to require a lot of local Twitter employees around the world, and a lot of laws that must be heeded–suggesting that the value of Twitter for revolutionary activity may dramatically deteriorate as the company expands.
You can read the Reuter story here.