Today, Twitter announced a new system that will allow the company to geolocationally block (or, to use their terms, “withhold”) specific tweets in specific countries. On the company blog, Twitter explained:
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.
It’s been difficult to comment on the move given the extreme reaction by Twitter’s own community. Lots of “I told you so” from the conspiracy theorists who think that this is because of Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s stake in the company, compounded by the #occupy crowd continuing to claim their hashtag was censored in Twitter’s trending topics made me want to avoid the subject entirely. But alas.
Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. Google lays out its orders in its Transparency Report. Other companies are less forthright. In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor). And if they have “boots on the ground”, so to speak, in the country in question? No choice.
In the event that a company chooses to comply with government requests and censor content, there are a number of mitigating steps the company can take. The most important, of course, is transparency, something that Twitter has promised. Google is also transparent in its content removal (Facebook? Not so much). Twitter’s move to geolocate their censorship is also smart, given the alternative (censoring it worldwide, that is) – particularly since it appears a user can manually change his or her location.
I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies. Twitter has previously taken down content–for DMCA requests, at least–and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future. I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation…and I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up.