Twitter’s New Policy And Debate About Online Speech
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
The announcement caught many Internet analysts off guard.
Late last week, on January 26th, the micro-blogging site Twitter said it was implementing changes that would allow it to withhold content from specific nations upon request. In other words, if a government asked, Twitter could block certain tweets or users on a nation-by-nation status.
“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,” the company wrote on its Twitter blog:
“We will evaluate each request before taking any action. Any content we do withhold in response to such a request is clearly identified to users in that country as being withheld. And we are now able to make that content available to users in the rest of the world.”
Initial reaction was rapid and heated. Al Jazeera’s assessment of “Twitter’s censorship plan” summed up much of the criticism, while bloggers such as Jacqueline Drayer accused the San Francisco-based firm of caving in to authoritarian governments in hopes of boosting its corporate profits. The hashtag #twittercensorship became a hot trending topic (of all places on Twitter) and organizers suggested a tweeting blackout on January 28th in protest. Russian journalist Oleg Kozyrev expressed concern about free speech during that nation’s upcoming presidential elections, and elsewhere the government of Thailand, which maintains tight control over web use, endorsed the idea.
For free speech advocates, it seemed at first like a bad development. But soon, some of the criticism began to moderate, and then give way to a new question. Namely, is Twitter’s new policy actually more pro-free speech?
Censorship or Transparency?
“Twitter did not do a very good job of communicating this change in policy,” notes Eva Galperin with the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Twitter has taken down tweets in compliance with valid court orders for years. Now, instead of taking down the tweet for everyone, they are able to block the tweet in the country where the court order originated. The net result is less censorship, not more,” she says.
It may be hard at first to see how a policy of selective censorship could be considered pro-free speech. There are, however, several points to consider:
- Twitter has always had the ability to block tweets or users, which it has exercised on rare occasions, usually for claims of copyright infringement. The difference is that those blocks were global, meaning specific comments or users were completely wiped off its site. Under its new policy, government requests to block information will apply only to that nation; users elsewhere will still be able to view the offending material. That’s small comfort to those whose feeds are being censored, but with the material available to the rest of the world, blocked tweets may eventually seep back into the blocking country.
- With approximately 1 billion tweets every three days, reading through all of Twitter is the Internet equivalent of sipping water from a fire hose. Consider what needs to happen: a government must comb through Twitter to find a specific tweet and prepare an official request, that request will be reviewed by Twitter’s legal staff, and only when it’s been deemed legitimate will the material be pulled. That’s a span of days in a medium that changes by the second. So by the time a tweet is yanked, most likely everyone interested in its content will have already seen it.
- It is almost comically easy to evade Twitter’s nation-by-nation blocks, as Twitter itself lays out in its online Help Center. By default, a users’ national status is determined by their ISP; however users can simply change their national status manually in their profiles.Thus if someone on Twitter sees that an account or message has been blocked, they can just update their profile and view the blocked post.
“In this particular policy, Twitter has done everything it can do to help free-speech advocates around the world except deliver coffee and bagels in the morning,” writes University of North Carolina technology professor Zeynep Tufekci. “This is a model of how Internet companies should behave. I hope Twitter practices this policy as it outlined, and practices maximum transparency and minimum compliance with restrictive laws.”
To be clear, not everyone is comforted. Critics still worry that any trend toward less free speech online only empowers those seeking more censorship, and there’s no telling how – or how often – Twitter will use this new power.
By law, Twitter will have to comply only with legitimate blockage requests that come from nations where it actually has a physical presence. So, for example, in the case of Russia, Twitter has no offices on Russian territory, so technically it will be able to ignore any requests from Moscow if it wishes. However, Russian authorities always have the option of blocking Twitter completely, as several other nations have tried to do.
In the end, despite the initial ruckus caused by the announcement, little has changed. Twitter, like every other Internet firm, can remove content if it chooses, and nation states can try and remove websites, if they choose.
Says Galperin,”I would advise Twitter users all over the world to hold governments accountable for their Internet censorship policies.”