Paul Smalera

Twitter’s censorship is a grey box of shame, but not for Twitter

January 29, 2012

332686-twitter-censoredTwitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be… well, never mind.) The critics settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

To be sure, that’s censorship of a kind, but compared to the industry censorship even Americans have long lived with — take the Motion Picture Association of America, which still censors films based on dubious standards of taste and morality — it’s positively enlightened. And it never permanently destroys or pre-empts content, the way the MPAA does.

Further, for a country to censor content, it has to make a “valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity” to Twitter, which will then decide what to do with the request. Twitter will also make an effort to notify users whose content is censored about what happened and why, and even give them a method to challenge the request. According to Twitter’s post, a record of the action will also be filed to the Chilling Effects website. The end result of a successful request is that the tweet or user in question is replaced by a grey box that notifies other readers inside the censoring country that the Tweet has been censored:

twitterThey’re grey boxes of shame alright, but not for the user, or for Twitter. It’s instead a bright signal to a country’s online citizens that their government is limiting their free speech. While the Egypt uprisings were powerful and in some part powered by Twitter, I can easily imagine a world where a censored tweet becomes the ultimate protest symbol; one that unfortunately deprives the protesters of content, but sends the message to protesters that their worst fears are right, and they ought not give up their fight.

The press organization Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter of protest to Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey, which is surprising considering the power of the gift that Dorsey has just given them. While some reporters get themselves on the ground to report from say, Syria, nothing can stop others in the U.S. or any other country from following the tweets of Syrian protesters, even if the Syrian government requests and is granted censorship of tweets within that country.

That’s the second important note: Twitter has made no mention of disabling users’ ability to tweet or of deleting a user because their tweets have been censored. Syria or some other country may choose to take down its communications grid or try to block access to Twitter, but short of such an action, it can’t stop tweets from reaching the outside world under this policy. In fact Twitter has strengthened its case to remain online in countries where free speech is threatened, possibly providing protesters with a valuable tool that would otherwise have been preemptively shut down.

If a government does engage in a cat-and-mouse game of blocking access, remember that nowhere else is the playing field more level between authorities and insurgents than online. Workarounds for Twitter blocks already exist, such as proxy servers that spoof the identity of users and their country of origin, and alternative access points (APIs) to reach the Twitter service.

Finally, reputation matters. Twitter has engendered much goodwill in the tech and international communities by its sterling behaviour in both worlds. This is the company that put off a server upgrade to keep the tweets flowing from the Iran uprising in 2009, at the request of the U.S. State Department. It’s a company that’s managed to play by the rules while also levelling the playing field of communication as no other service has since Alexander Bell’s telephone. There’s nothing about this announcement that smacks of any change in policy or attitude; rather it seems like an honest attempt to abide by country-specific rules of law, while also exposing the power of those laws to citizens in countries where freedoms have been abridged. (Forbes as an example, mentions it is illegal to insult a French bureaucrat. One can imagine the uprising in France if the government tried to censor a Tweet insulting Sarkozy or one of his ministers, which would presumably lead to a rapid re-writing of that law.)

As long as no country can ever make a claim to censor a tweet on a worldwide basis, that tweet will exist somewhere on Twitter’s servers, and someone will be able to see it. By laying down clear rules for country-specific censorship, Twitter has implicitly stated that no government, company or individual has the power to eradicate a tweet it doesn’t like from the face the Earth. Twitter has laid down the rules by which it will hold countries accountable, and by which it will hold itself accountable, at least when it comes to censorship.

They are so fair as to be without precedent, and if they are violated, the world presumably will be able to see the hypocrisy in an instant. That’s a maturity that many — governments, corporations, and yes, sniping tweeters — have rarely shown when it comes to censorship or privacy policies. (Hello, SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, DMCA, Facebook and the rest!)

Besides, if Twitter were as evil as its critics would have us believe, would we be able to see the results of the ongoing #TwitterBlackout? If we are living in a world where corporations have more power than government, I’ll take that level of transparency from a new media company, every day.

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Paul Smalera is a Reuters columnist.

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