Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Thoughts on Twitter’s Latest Move

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.

15 Comments

  1. I wonder if this means that Twitter will only block content that’s subject to DMCA takedowns in the US.

  2. If they want to make it really transparent, Twitter should setup an account – @TwitterCnDs, say (and it’s unregistered at the moment: https://twitter.com/twittercnds) where they report each instance of takedown – the user, the original tweet URL (even though it’ll be gone) and the reason. If the original can be edited to remove the restriction the originator should be given the option to do so and repost – and that tweet appears as a linked reply to the @TwitterCnDs tweet – so we can all follow the CnD process/conversation – and be certain the process is not being abused.

    Maybe it’s an unworkable idea. I understand why Twitter has to do this, but I don’t like it. Transparency will be the key to maintaining my crazily strong support for Twitter (particularly compared to other, less transparent social media networks).

    • Not a bad idea, though I’m not sure how much this differs from their plan to post all instances on Chilling Effects.

      And yes, I agree – I understand where Twitter is coming from, but I don’t like it either.

  3. “boots on the ground”? You need to go as low as military language?

    There is no need to censor. As the blackout has shown, if a big company like Reddit gets its clients/customers/users motivated, policies can be changed. Twitter could have done the same.

    They choose not to. Time to move on.

  4. I don’t think you get it. If a company has “boots on the ground” (staffers in the country – see why I went with that language? It sounds clearer) then it must abide by said country’s rules.

    So yes, Twitter could refuse to censor most things (DMCA takedowns aside, that is, because as you know, they’re already doing that)…but they wouldn’t be able to expand their company.

    Yes, Reddit’s blackout changed policies in the US…but that’s the US. Do you really believe Twitter could somehow change the minds of policymakers around the world?

  5. We shouldn’t blame Twitter for censorship, we should blame gov’t! – @cdn

  6. Mr De Neef’s right. Blame rests squarely with governments defining ‘national security’ for the rest of us ‘children’ forgetting that governments come and go. With sizeable chunk of the human species enjoying direct democratic participation through its platform, Twitter must not underestimate its growing importance and influence.

  7. twitter did this voluntarily .. no one ordered them to do so.

    no transparency on method, either. keyword filtration? on the basis of complaint? username filtration?

    it will be used in the usa, of that we can have no doubt.

  8. “They’re only following orders” is a terrible defense of what you admitted is a blatant new censorship policy. This type of country-based censorship can be used to silence GLBT activists in anti-gay countries, or to shut down political discourse in countries with stifling governments. In the wake of social media being a galvanizing force for social change in many totalitarian regimes, it should stick in all our craws that the US government’s response is to investigate ways to cripple their citizen’s right to protest. We should all be upset that instead of hailing this as a tool for democracy, our government is asking “How can we shut all these people out of the conversation for good?”

    Yet, you don’t see a reason to be upset yet, and the company is just following orders. It’s sad that because you can’t see any harm coming to you in this policy, there’s no reason for you to feel outrage yet.

    • I fully agree with all you’ve said here Zoe – except there hadn’t actually been any orders yet. They have pre-emptively introduced these measures. I agree – location-based censorship is pretty rotten… The GLBT thing especially so….

  9. Totally agree with you Jillian – I also thought it was a bad omen when I heard it but if the option is take down some tweets or be completely banned – I think Twitter will be doing a disservice to the citizens of that country if it got completely banned (for not taking down tweets). People need to realize that the free for all – say anything you want – culture in the US is not the same in other countries and Twitter has to play by their rules if they want to exist in that Country. If you have an issue with this – then take the issue up with that country’s government – not Twitter.

  10. I dont know… Maybe this isn’t an entirely fair comparison but what if someone we’re commenting on your blog and gaining notoriety amongst their government for what they were expressing and their government came to you (I know, just entertain me) and said either delete their comments or we’ll block access to your entire site in our nation.

    I’m hearing both sides of the argument but I can’t help but feel that by Twitter entertaining the notion that its ok that a government can intervene in this way and censor its people, is sending the wrong message in the broader picture of things. That this is a tolerable measure for governments to take instead of questioning their censorship policy altogether.

    Its just not effecting us (yet) so instead we sympathize with Twitters business interests and say well yeah if they want to keep expanding then they should comply. But if it was affecting us in the US, I’m pretty sure we’d all say to hell with their business interests.

    And for someone that is being censored in another country, it also would take some of the focus off who is to blame. A user notices its being censored and they see that its twitters own infrastructure and staff thats handling this. Its easier to blame Twitter than to take it the extra step and see the government is behind it.

    P.S. Hi Jill :)

  11. The Next Web have an excellent article explaining how blocked tweets will appear in your timeline:

    http://thenextweb.com/twitter/2012/01/27/worried-about-possible-restrictions-on-twitter-heres-how-to-get-around-them/

    which seems to me to be about as transparent as it can be. Also it seems there’s a simple workaround – change your country to “Worldwide”, which puts the responsibility back on the Twitter user.

    Whether that situation lasts for long is another thing, as I suspect it’ll be challenged in some countries. If Twitter are then forced to use an IP address to country look-up to enforce a user’s location, that’ll drive more users in affected countries to use foreign proxies and Tor networks – if they can.

  12. Kudos to Twitter for building the foundation for a stateless, distributed, nonprofit replacement that will be more trusted than they are. Torwitter anyone?

  13. Wow, like the info. Twitter get PR10. It is really amazing that Twitter got high PR instead of Face Book…

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