Twitter censorship a back-flip on human rights

On the 26th of January, Twitter announced a back-flip on its previous public pronouncement that it was the bastion of free speech. One year ago, Twitter celebrated that it would uphold free speech as a 'human right' for countries that had censorship laws. Now it says it will comply with these laws.

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  1. Twitter acknowledged that it was going against its own position on censorship on its blog on the 26th of January:
    "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content."
  2. Twitter's blog includes a link to Chilling Effects, a site that alerts users about what content has been flagged for censorship. The complaints currently listed are about media content. What will happen when the complaints are about freedom of expression for various political activist groups?

    The language Twitter uses is about weeding out 'Nazis' but its decision to comply with censorship is clearly a business consideration. Yes, Twitter is a business – but since it has been selling itself as a champion of international freedom and communication, its new policy is compromising one of its strongest marketing points.

    The Nazi example is a poor misrepresentation of what the changes might mean.
  3. That’s the example Twitter offered, and it’s a pretty convenient one. Who’s going to side with the Nazis? But there are plenty of other, less-palatable laws Twitter is now in a position to enforce, like Thailand’s ban on anything deemed insulting to the king, or Turkey’s similar prohibition on defaming its national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Speaking of Turkey, it outlaws any discussion of the Armenian genocide, while France just passed a bill making it a crime to deny the genocide happened. So now Twitter can, in theory, be asked to observe both laws. Absurd, yes, but hardly unprecedented. Google already blocks search results and other content in a number of countries around the globe for similar reasons. But it’s different when it’s Twitter. Google only promises not to be evil (and some critics say it’s now failing to clear even that low bar.) Twitter’s devotees have built it up into something much more exalted: a force for global progress and human enlightenment. Anyone who bought into that narrative can’t help but feel disappointed and betrayed. Of course, it was never fully true, but that didn’t stop Twitter’s leaders from stoking the myth. In a blog post published a year ago headlined “The Tweets Must Flow,” they proclaimed, “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”
  4. Some commentators note that Twitter's announcement is about business transparency: Twitter is merely informing users of its changed practices, which are not dissimilar to the censorship compliance of other internet giants such as Google.
  5. In an interview with the Voice of Russia, Director General of the “Legenda” media agency Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky, who is also a member of the Russian Public Chamber, said: “I believe that by introducing censorship, Twitter’s administration is just trying to be on the safe side. It is trying to protect itself from possible scandals or lawsuits." “Those who are unhappy with any moves that aim to “limit the freedom of speech” on the Web are usually more guided by emotions than by reason. They either know little about the real state of affairs or just don’t want to listen to any arguments. They raise their heads every time news about “censorship” appears, but as a rule, they quickly calm down.” “In fact,” Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky continues, “we are already living in a rather censored world. Insults or threats are illegal in any event, so people are starting to think carefully what they can write or say and what they’d better not.” While it is already known what kind of messages will now be blocked in France and Germany, the situation in other countries, including Russia, is not that clear. However, Mr. Korobkov-Zemlyansky is confident that in Russia, censorship will not be very tough.
  6. Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argued that the change was inevitable, given Twitter's global presence. "This is censorship. There's no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law," she wrote. "Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content," York argued. "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."
  7. Google, Yahoo and Facebook all have the similar censorship policies in place:
  8. Yahoo Was sued in 2000 by French civil liberties groups over the sale of Nazi memorabilia via its auction facility. Yahoo had blocked the sale but argued that as it is based in California, was governed by American law. But US courts ruled they had no jurisdiction in France; the French courts could enforce decisions about Yahoo in their territory. Twitter Until this week, the entire service could be blocked (as happens in China) or tweets and accounts had to be deleted wholesale, across the world. Now the microblogging service Has a system where tweets and accounts can be blocked in particular countries. It will post them on the Chilling Effects website (which records takedown requests). But observers note that it is giving users clues about who and what has been banned – which could make the original discoverable. Google Is able to ban content by country: in China it would note when a set of search results had been censored (at the government's order). In Germany and France, searches are filtered. Facebook Can restrict access to content based on who is viewing it: if it's legal in one country but not in another, Facebook can prevent its viewing in the latter. eBay In 2000 the auction site changed its policy after public pressure so that Nazi goods and memorabilia cannot not be traded.
  9. There's been speculation that Twitter's decision to engage in censorship is due to Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal investment in the company, which was announced in December. While Bin Talal's investment is hefty, his investment only accounts for 3% of Twitter's company share. Conspiracy theories about Bin Talal’s influence over Twitter’s current policy change are likely to be unfounded.
  10. Some bloggers speculated the announcement could have been linked to a $300m (£191m) )investment in Twitter made in December by Saudi prince, Alwaleed Bin Talal, but that was denied by Twitter's counsel, Alex Macgillivray.
  11. Twitter's decision is likely to be less about giving into political pressure from a single source and more about expanding its business reach into new markets. The ramifications to censor tweets, however, may have detrimental long term effects, as the applications of this new policy have yet to be tested.
  12. “I don’t think this means Twitter is going to be in a conspiracy with repressive governments,” said Jeff Neuburger, co-chair of the technology, media and communication law practice at the Proskauer firm. “I think a lot depends on how Twitter uses this technology.”
  13. Some social media analysts, such as commentators on Mashable, argue that Twitter's policy is not necessarily negative, as it means individual countries will be censored rather than having Twitter's service blocked for an entire country:
  14. But wouldn’t it be better for activists if Twitter just refused to comply with requests from oppressive regimes? Actually, no. If a government asks Twitter to remove an offending tweet, the company essentially has two options: Comply and block that single tweet or user in that country (while still allowing the rest of the world to see), or refuse and risk the government itself blocking Twitter for everyone in that country. So which seems better for activists? I’ll pick the former any day — it still allows activists to speak to the world at large and draw attention to their treatment. That’s something Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa posits could be more powerful.
  15. Some countries that have social media bans in place are still able to get around censorship laws because they have access to other technologies. A case in point is China, where social media use has grown by 300%. When taking this into consideration, perhaps Twitter’s new policy will not disrupt freedom of expression.
  16. Social media use grew 300% in China last year and more than half of the country's 500 million users are on a social network, according to a government report released last week. And that's why Chinese New Year became the most micro-blogged event in history, with 481,207 messages posted in the first minute of the year on a Chinese, Twitter-like service, as well as 32,312 messages posted in a single second: well above Twitter's record of 25,088 tweets in a second. Still, many Chinese, both in China and abroad, are finding ways to use Twitter to talk free of government censorship.
  17. Then again, in countries where governments control technology infrastructures in other ways, Twitter's censorship only adds further obstacles to information sharing, with devastating effects. For example, the Democratic of Congo banned text messages last year, which meant that its hearing impaired citizens were in further danger as they could not warn one another about violence outbreaks. In contexts such as these, Twitter is further enabling the oppression of freedom that it previously promoted:
  18. Social media has played a widely-debated role in several political protests around the world. Whatever its true impact on the Occupy movement, the “Arab Spring” and other regime changes, Twitter has enabled the organisation of social activism because it offers an instant means to exchange information. It's too early to tell how Twitter's censorship policy may play out, but as Reporters Without Borders has noted, Twitter's decision “just opens up the floodgates” of political misuse. The reality is that any censorship changes are likely to have profoundly harmful consequences for people who live in countries that already deny them the liberty to communicate.


    The changes to Twitter policy are not trivial. Countries such as Australia, the USA and Britain have autonomy to use social media in ways that are taken for granted. Twitter’s censorship policies are unlikely to have direct impact in liberal democracies, but given the recent backlash over internet censorship when the SOPA and PIPA legislation were being fought over, censorship in one country has the capacity to impact on communication all over the world. As Amnesty International recently argued - internet access is a human right. Allowing governments to censor content on Twitter in oppressive regimes today will mean that governments and corporations will have grounds to censor content all over the world tomorrow.

    As a business choice, Twitter's decision to participate in censorship may potentially hurt its brand, depending on what comes of the current backlash and the move some groups have made to boycott Twitter. What made Twitter distinct from other news services was that it was positioned as an international beacon for "citizen journalism". Twitter's policy changes mean that it now treads on tricky, dangerous ground. Twitter might well be falling into line with other internet services; it might simply have made its practices more visible through its announcement; but it also makes clear that its previous commitment to human rights can be bought and sold.
  19. Reporters Without Borders said it had concerns about the new measures. "In the bigger scheme of things it just opens up the floodgates," spokeswoman Heather Blake told the BBC. "It allows for Twitter or other internet organisations to censor things. Freedom of information, and freedom of the press can be compromised. "It would be interesting to ask them what research they have done to show this will help in any way by censoring tweets within countries. Is it problematic, or are they getting pressured by certain organisations or certain regimes within the countries in order to continue to function there?"