Twitter sparked an outcry — indeed, an #outcry and calls for a #TwitterBlackout– when it announced on Thursday that it now has “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” That is, Twitter will now block certain messages in countries where certain content is considered illegal, when authorities make what is deemed a valid request. Users will know that something has been blocked on seeing “Tweet withheld” in a gray box, as well as a message that “This tweet from @username has been withheld in: [name of country].”
The response of a user from Sweden, Björn Nilsson, typified the feelings of many:
“Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends.”
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained for 81 days by the Chinese government last year, uses proxy services to post on Twitter which is banned in China. But Ai has tweeted that “If Twitter starts censoring, then I’ll stop tweeting.”
The Atlantic Wire points out there is actually a “pretty easy way to get around the whole ordeal.” Twitter censors tweets based on the country a user is located in. If you follow these instructions, you can find out how to change your location to a country with different censorship laws, to see a tweet that is censored in your own country.
Twitter has always had to ”remove content that is illegal in one country or another, whether it is a copyright violation, child pornography or something else,” says the New York Times. As Twitter representative Matt Graves told The Atlantic Wire, the company does “not proactively monitor or filter any content.” Twitter’s concern is not to censor what users tweet, but to comply with the censorship policies of different countries “just enough to get them off their backs” and to avoid having to shut down in some countries. The company will actually be posting removal requests on Chilling Effects, which is jointly run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several American universities.
While Twitter is taking what is a “logical step” as a global communication platform, it is, notes TechCrunch, an unfortunate sign that Twitter is conceding (if not kowtowing) to the policies of governments — including repressive regimes — around the world:
Before this announcement, Twitter was a global platform on which something was either said or not said, on a global scale. Now, Twitter’s new power to enforce censorship depending on your country both legitimizes the blocks and concedes international territory specifically to countries that “have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” This diplomatic casting of the restriction of speech, from a company that is built around the idea of free communication, is troubling.
Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has described Twitter’s announcement as a “necessary evil.” The problem that Twitter has run into is one that internet companies are going to encounter as they seek to operate globally and in countries that restrict people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression. Politico quotes Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Global Internet Freedom project:
“Companies are in a difficult position. Is it better for platforms to remain in a country even if some content is blocked?”
It is indeed a thin line that Twitter is walking. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, notes that the change could alter the “usefulness of Twitter in authoritarian countries” and even render it “no longer helpful to a rebellion against oppressive governments.”
If such is the case, Twitter could be on its way to no longer being a “political tool.” Certainly will remain a platform to use to communicate with friends, share websites and articles, promote products and such. But as Twitter evolves into a global social and business platform, can it remain an agent of political change and human rights?
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