- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
When Twitter unveiled a new system last week to censor specific tweets in specific countries if the content violates local laws, many people reacted in anger. Some spent Saturday boycotting the service. Reporters Without Borders penned a letter denouncing the move. International microblogging celebrities such as Ai Weiwei and Mahmoud Salem took Twitter to task. "Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends," Swedish Twitter user Björn Nilsson wrote.
In fact, Nilsson wasn’t so far off. Since Twitter’s announcement, voices in countries where free speech is tightly restricted have rushed to the company’s defense (others claim Twitter’s new rules are actually good for free speech).
In Thailand, which has strict lèse majesté laws to punish those who criticize the royal family, the information and communication technology minister, Jeerawan Boonperm, called Twitter’s new policy a "welcome development" and told the Bangkok Post that she would be following up with the company to discuss ways to collaborate, as her ministry already does with Google and Facebook. The Next Web points out that Thailand has leaned on Facebook and YouTube in the past to remove content that violates local laws.
In China, where Twitter is blocked, the state-run Global Times published an editorial by Xu Ming applauding Twitter, a "service reputed for its free-wheeling and libertarian ways in the Western world." (Some have interpreted Twitter’s move as an effort to make inroads in China, though the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York told Foreign Policy on Friday that Twitter’s new system may have more to do with the company setting up offices in Europe.) Twitter is acting shrewdly, Xu argued:
It is important for it to respect the cultures and ideas of different countries so as to blend into local environments harmoniously….
It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.
The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.
In a move that may or may not be related to Twitter’s new policy, the editor in chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, joined the microblogging service over the weekend, drawing a sharp response from Ai Weiwei. "Welcome to forbidden land," the dissident artist tweeted at Hu.
Thailand and China aren’t alone. Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky, a member of the Russian Public Chamber, a government oversight committee, told the state-run Voice of Russia that Twitter is just "trying to protect itself from possible scandals or lawsuits." He said those who criticize threats to free speech on the web are guided more by emotion than reason. "We are already living in a rather censored world," he explained, adding that "Russian laws are rather liberal" when it comes to censorship. The Moscow Times, meanwhile, quoted Russian activists condemning Twitter’s decision or dismissing it as hollow. "Twitter is too fast," blogger Ilya Varlamov noted. "By the time the government would get around to blocking content, it would already be too old to matter."
Iran’s PressTV, for its part, has subtly come out against Twitter and helped feed speculation that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival, helped shape the company’s new policy. The state-run news outlet noted that Saudi Prince AlWaleed bin Talal recently invested $300 million in Twitter — a transaction that "sparked outrage among rights activists who said it would eventually lead to the restriction of freedom of speech." Twitter’s decision comes as "Saudi Arabian and Bahraini protesters heavily rely on the social networking site for their anti-government protests," PressTV observed, conventiently overlooking use of the service by Syrian activists.
So there you have it. Thailand and China on one side of the free speech debate and Iran on the other, with Twitter improbably in the middle.