The Twitter censorship storm: Hype or reality wake-up call?

A storm has been raging on Twitter today after it announced on its corporate blog that it will implement an option to re-actively censor tweets or twitter accounts for readers in specific countries if a valid request to do so has been made by a legal entity. The example was given of France and Germany using this to block prohibited pro-Nazi statements.

It caused a host of blog posts and tweets from people strongly opposing this and calling it an infringement on the freedom of speech. Some better researched then others. Now Twitter certainly didn’t do itself any favors announcing it the way they did and corrected it by adding more info about the solution to be implemented after the storm erupted but what does it really mean??

A lot has already been said about this so I’m not going to repeat it all but in short it boils down to this.

  • Legal entities will be able to report Twitter accounts and individual tweet messages to Twitter and ask them to censor those to readers in a specific country based on local law.
  • After reviewing Twitter might decide to honor the request. The specified Tweets/Accounts will not be deleted or blocked from posting but readers in the specified country will get a replacement text stating the account or tweet was blocked for that country. The text will still be available to readers in other countries.
  • Censoring is done on a per request base, meaning tweets will not be blocked automatically but after they’ve been placed (except when accounts are blocked) and reported to Twitter.
  • Determination of the users country is made based on IP address but can apparently be overruled by the users own country preference settings in the Twitter settings (I predict this option will be restricted pretty soon by the way if it is a working work around).
  • Twitter is doing this to comply with local law but at the same time more or less says this doesn’t mean it feels it has to agree with all regimes ideas of freedom of expression: “…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….“.
  • Some call Twitters’ action a way of actually ensuring its existence as an activist platform in oppressive countries (link). Given the previous statement I doubt that. If regimes find that it is to much of an opposition platform they will block Twitter regardless of its policies.
  • A large group of Twitter users is opposing this change by calling out for a #TwitterBlackOut on January 28th.

Ok, to be honest it really doesn’t set off any alarm bells to me right now. I actually think Twitter has found a pretty nifty way of working around something that would have inevitable come around anyway. What some seem to forget is that Twitter is not an idealistic or activist entity that transcends laws, it’s a company. With people working for it, offices, accountability and (uhoh… blasphemy) a goal of making money. That means it is required to obey the common law restrictions imposed on it by law makers as would any other company. And operating globally means being globally accountable.

The other thing that really intrigues me here is the fact that most people automatically associate this with the freedom of speech restrictions in oppressive countries while in fact most countries (including Europe and the United States) have certain restrictions on the absolute right to Freedom of Speech as well. Mostly when it comes to things like racial or religious hatred, discrimination and slander. So it isn’t just about protecting itself and its employees from prosecution in rogue states and dictatorships, it’s just as much a way of complying to the rules in open minded regions like Europe and the United States.

So do I think that what Twitter announced is a bad thing? Not necessarily. I regret it, but having to obey to law restrictions is an inevitable fact of live if you operate a company and at least they are making an effort to be open about it.
Am I opposed to the boycotting Twitter for a day (#TwitterBlackout)? No, but I think it should be about an awareness call to address the universal Freedom of Speech rights. Not to address a company trying to walk the tightrope between upholding the ideals of Freedom of Speech while obeying local law restrictions at the same time.