Why Twitter's New Censorship Tool Isn't As Bad As It Seems

Last Thursday, Twitter announced that it would start censoring tweets by denying access to specific tweets in countries where those tweets would be illegal.  Naturally, this has caused a lot of concern online

Some see the announcement as a first step towards expanding into China in Twitter by complying with Beijing's compulsory, rigorous state censorship.  (Twitter's general counsel has denied this, saying the announcement “has nothing to do with China.”)

Others fear that it is somehow tied to the recent $300 million investment in Twitter by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed, and that he was flexing his capital muscle to quiet Twitter, which helped facilitate the Arab Spring and continues to threaten the stability of the region's authoritarian governments. (But take this theory with a grain of salt: Waleed owns less than four percent of Twitter, hardly enough to wield the kind of influence needed to implement censorship.)

The government of Thailand, where lese majeste laws are still enforced and those who call King Bhumibol Adulyadej anything other than a great guy risk prison time, is rather pleased with the new policy.  I wouldn't be surprised if some of the more vehemently anti-gay governments, for example Iran and Uganda, are warm to the idea too. The international gay community appears to be worried about the possibility, at least.

With all this potential censorship, the tweeting masses have been left wondering: What was Twitter thinking?

I've been chewing on this myself. My first response was much like that of the masses: alarm. But when you consider the ubiquity of censorship laws outside the U.S., Twitter's position is much more understandable.

After all, it's not just authoritarian countries in the Middle East and Asia that censor.  While the First Amendment keeps the U.S. (mostly) censorship-free, laws against speech are quite common abroad, even in Western nations.

For example, in Germany, I could be subject imprisonment for up to five years for tweeting that Federal President Christian Wulff is a horrible person.  In France, I couldn't tweet "I don't believe that the Holocaust happened" without running the risk of charges. In Britain, a tweet that violates a super-injunction could conceivably be cause for censorship.

As former Berkperson and current EFFer Jillian York writes on her blog:

...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.

It seems unlikely that Twitter will be opening a Cairo office or a Beijing office any time soon.  But London, Paris, or Berlin?  In fact, Twitter's already in London, Paris would be a reasonable step, and a Berlin office is in the works.  And thus those foreign offices give their host nations leverage, should they request tweets be censored.

And Twitter already does censor tweets, as the EFF's Eva Galperin points out, and this new country-specific censoring in fact allows them to censor less:

Until now, when Twitter has taken down content, it has had to do so globally. So for example, if Twitter had received a court order to take down a tweet that is defamatory to Ataturk--which is illegal under Turkish law--the only way it could comply would be to take it down for everybody. Now Twitter has the capability to take down the tweet for people with IP addresses that indicate that they are in Turkey and leave it up everywhere else.

Galperin also notes that tweeters can use proxies and anonymizer networks (like Tor) to end run around the censors.

I'm a little leery of Galperin's argument about the policy meaning less censorship.  It's true that if Twitter uses exactly the same takedown criteria that it has before, but now tailored to the specific countries at issue, more people would see the tweets, therefore censorship would lessen. 

But with the ability to tailor censoring, I worry that censorship might become less appalling to Twitter staffers.  For example, if you've got a takedown request for a borderline tweet from Syria and a takedown would be worldwide, Twitter might be hesitant to censor it.  But if they could censor it only in Syria, Twitter might lose that hesitation.  Thus, Twitter might actually censor more often in frequency, if less broadly in scope.

I suspect such a concern may be why Galperin called upon Twitter users to "Keep Twitter honest." And Twitter is to be commended for giving the public a tool to do so: they've begun submitting takedown requests to Chilling Effects (a Berkman-affliated project), so we all can see who's asking for takedowns and why.

Further, as Matthew Battles at Harvard's MetaLab writes, the censored tweets won't just disappear – they'll be replaced by a notification that the tweet was taken down.  That notification may inspire curiosity about the censorship, and could in turn bring greater scrutiny upon the government behind the takedown.

I think the best way to handle Twitter's censorship going forward is via the old Reagan chestnut of "Trust, but verify." As York writes, "the company is doing its best in a tough situation," but she promises "I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up."  Given the rock and hard place between which Twitter finds itself, we should cut it some slack.

But if Twitter goes astray, all bets are off.

Arthur is the research attorney and editor for the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center and a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.  He tweets occasionally at @NominallyBright.

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