Why Twitter will regret its misguided flirtation with censorship.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Outrage has predictably followed Twitter’s announcement yesterday that it has developed a system to block (or, as the company euphemistically puts it, "withhold") specific tweets in specific countries if they violate local law, while keeping the content available for the rest of the world. The hashtag #TwitterBlackout is bursting with calls for a boycott of the microblogging service on Saturday, and headlines like "Twitter caves to global censorship" abound.

But the indignation may be overwrought. The Next Web‘s Anna Heim points out that Twitter users who want to see a blocked tweet can simply change their country setting. In fact, Twitter’s decision to link to instructions on how to change that setting as part of its announcement has some speculating that the company is actually feigning respect for local laws while winking at its users.

"Chances are that Twitter perfectly knows about this workaround," Heim writes. "Users won’t need to hide their IP address with a proxy: Twitter lets them change it manually, despite the potential loss in hyperlocal ad dollars for the platform." Indeed, in an email exchange with Foreign Policy, Twitter spokeswoman Rachel Bremer emphasized user control. "Because geo-location by IP address is an imperfect science," she explained, "we allow users to manually set their country."

What’s more, Twitter has promised to disclose any information it withholds through a system that looks a lot like Google’s Transparency Report, which tracks requests by government agencies and courts around the world for Google to hand over user data or remove content from its services. Twitter pledges to alert users when their tweets or accounts have been removed, clearly mark withheld content, and post notices on the website Chilling Effects. The company will only remove content in reaction to "valid legal process — we don’t do anything proactively," Bremer explained. She insisted that Twitter’s commitment to free speech, which "has been demonstrated in our actions since the company was founded," is "not changing."

But that’s just the problem. Twitter has long built its brand around free expression. While the company has never joined tech giants such as Google and Microsoft in supporting the Global Network Initiative, which seeks to protect online privacy and free speech, Twitter has championed those values in other ways. CEO Dick Costolo likes to say that Twitter is the "free speech wing of the free speech party," while former CEO Evan Williams once described the company’s goal as reaching the "weakest signals all over the world," citing protests in Iran and Moldova as examples. Not only did Twitter famously postpone a planned outage at the height of the Iranian protests in 2009, but when the Egyptian government shut down social networks last year at the start of the revolution, Twitter teamed up with Google to develop a "speak-to-tweet" service. While "Google only promises not to be evil," Jeff Bercovici writes at Forbes, "Twitter’s devotees have built it up into something much more exalted: a force for global progress and human enlightenment."

And, so far, Twitter has not done a particularly good job of explaining how this week’s changes will alter its process for removing content and why the company is willing to imperil its brand by implementing the new rules. In announcing the policy, Twitter explained that it will need to "enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression" as it grows. But what does "enter countries" mean for a website theoretically available from anywhere? Spokespeople have since added that there are still countries where Twitter will not operate as a business (read: China, where Twitter is blocked) and that the changes have nothing to do with Saudi Prince AlWaleed bin Talal investing $300 million in the company. But when asked by Foreign Policy for an explanation of how notices under the new system might differ from the copyright complaints currently clogging Twitter’s section on Chilling Effects, Bremer declined to comment on "hypothetical situations about when or how we might have to remove content in the future."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York thinks the new system may have something to do with Twitter’s recent announcement that it will be opening an office in Germany, after previously expanding to Britain. By "implementing [these changes] in advance," York explains, "they may be saying, ‘OK, we’ll play by your rules. But only in your jurisdiction.’" (Indeed, in explaining the changes, Twitter noted that countries such as France and Germany ban pro-Nazi content.)

York says that while Twitter may respond to requests outside Europe under the new regime, it’s less likely because the company won’t have a business presence in other countries. "If they have a service presence everywhere except China, the only risk they have by not complying with requests [for content removal] is Twitter getting blocked," she notes. But if Twitter has people on the ground, the company is "risking people’s livelihoods at the very least and lives at the very worst" if they don’t comply with complaints about content.

York may be right, but Twitter’s remaining tight-lipped about its intentions. It’s no wonder, then, that people are cynically interpreting the announcement as yet another instance of a free speech-championing tech company putting pragmatism ahead of principle — a less brash version of Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner’s declaration last year that "we are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before."

As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram notes:

Twitter has just opened itself up to all kinds of conspiracy theories about what tweets it is or isn’t withholding — and on whose behalf it is removing them. What happens if and when a revolution erupts in Saudi Arabia? Critics will no doubt latch onto the fact that Saudi prince AlWaleed bin Talal lbin Abdulaziz owns a significant chunk of Twitter, thanks to a recent investment in its shares. And what if Britain orders Twitter to remove specific tweets during a riot like the one that caused so much controversy last year, when the government consider banning some users from the service?… What happens when someone posts a tweet that makes fun of the founder of Turkey, something that is a crime under Turkish law?

Or, as Suw Charman-Anderson explains at FirstPost, without context, we can’t tell if Twitter’s move "will decrease the number of tweets made unavailable to Twitter users, or whether it will enable more censorship." And if Twitter doesn’t enlighten us about its motives, its users will assume the worst.

 Twitter: @UriLF

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola