Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Twitter (page 1 of 8)

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.

Fresh looks at social media as a 2011 gamechanger

Two fresh looks at the effects, in 2011, of social media on the world.

The first, a talk from my friend Ethan Zuckerman at the University of British Columbia:

I’ve tapped out–imperfectly–a few excerpts for those of you who don’t watch videos:

In reference to how the ‘Arab Spring’ began:

Thinking about social media by itself simply as a way to get information out there is probably inadequate … We have to start thinking about the ecosystem.  We have to start thinking about this idea that what participatory media does is make it possible for people to create media at very low cost, and then if they’re able to use that complicated network, it’s possible–sometimes and not always–to get that media out and get it amplified to the point where it reaches enough people that you’re able to have a coordinating function, where people in Tunisia are able to say ‘We’ve never seen this before.  We’ve seen protests, but not like this.  The fact that it’s spreading from one town to another is unprecedented and that’s something I want to be a part of’  That’s how it moves, from involving a small number of people in a town to being capable of taking down a government.  So if that story’s true–I believe it is, and it’s worth taking a close look at–it’s a way of explaining what is a really tough mystery–how something leaves a small town and reaches the world–we have to ask the question: ‘Is there something special about Facebook?’

On the purpose of social media:

The purpose of Web 2.0 is to share cute pictures of kitty-cats. And I say that, and you think I’m joking, but I’m not. It’s not epiphenomenal that the video of the cat flushing the toilet goes out on YouTube and everyone is laughing at it…that’s the point of Web 2.0.

And, in reference to the Malaysian online public sphere:

…The same tools that are helping other people share cute photos of cats are finding these people a way to have a digital public sphere…not the kind of space they can have in the real world, which is too dangerous…but online, there was a capability to carve out a space for free speech.

And finally, and this is key:

“[Some of the tools, like Tor, being built by experts are utterly essential but] I worry that we don’t take these ‘cute cat tools’ seriously enough. These tools that anyone can use, that are used 99% of the time for completely banal purposes, purposes that you and I may find incredibly boring unless it’s the exact interest we care about. There are some reasons why these ‘cute cat tools’–like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, any tool that allows people to create and share original content and have many millions of users–are important…

…When the assumption is that you just want to get cute cat pictures, you spend a lot of time making these tools very usable…which results in these tools being usable even if you don’t speak the language, even if you’re not the intended audience. And because these tools are used by hundreds of millions of people, there’s a good chance that when someone gets involved in activism, these are the tools they’ll use.

The second, an article from Forbes on how Twitter specifically affected corporate decisions in 2011. An excerpt:

It started last year, when Gap proposed a new logo that was universally derided on Twitter, Tumblr and more. Gap’s new logo, which featured a white background and a small blue square, was mocked and parodied on all forms of social media, prompting campaigns to restore the original logo. Within a week of introducing the new logo design, the company had returned to its traditional blue and white square. It set the tone for a 2011 full of company reversals, spurred by vocal online backlash.

On Prince Waleed and Twitter

Photo via @abdullahsayel

There’s been quite a bit of buzz over the news today that Saudi Prince Waleed has invested $300m in Twitter. I barely paid attention to the news at first, considering the massive list of companies that the prince’s company, Kingdom Holdings, has invested in (including Amazon, eBay, and PriceLine, among many others, not to mention his share in NewsCorp). Within hours, however, there was a hashtag, #AlWaleedTwitter, filling up with jokes; there were also concerns expressed from numerous individuals within the Arab world and elsewhere on the impact Prince Waleed’s shareholding might have on the company.

As I told Fast Company in so many words, I honestly believe this is a red herring. Here’s why:

  • As I wrote in the Cairo Review Twitter has fought hard for free expression.  As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has joked, Twitter is “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”  And while they’ve been riled for months, years even, by rumors that they censor their trending topics (rumors which drive me nuts and simply demonstrate a lack of understanding of how the trending topics actually work), Twitter genuinely does have an excellent track record when it comes to free speech: They’ve stood up to the US government, the UK government, and individual users who abuse the site’s report functions.  Sure, they make mistakes–they’re hardly perfect–but compare Twitter’s track record on expression to that of Facebook, Yahoo, Google, or Microsoft and they’ll come out on top every time.
  • Prince Waleed now owns less than 5% of Twitter shares.  Sure, he gets votes, but I suspect he’ll be sorely disappointed if he makes any attempts to get the site to censor. But, as @ahmed pointed out to me, he doesn’t get any votes or board representation.  Also?  Saudi has blocked individual Twitter accounts in the past and I strongly suspect that they’d do it again rather than risk protest over Twitter censorship from the entire region.

Plus, as Neal Ungerleider points out, “Alwaleed’s true faith appears to be capitalism.”  Having a heavy hand over Twitter content doesn’t serve that goal, and while it’s fine to be on the lookout for shady investors (hell, where were all of these people when Russian company DST bought Twitter shares?), we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that an investment will result in censorship, if the company in question is otherwise ethical.


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