On Twitter, censorship and Internet freedom
I’m watching a lot of reactions roll across the social Web to the news that Twitter will now be able to censor tweets, if required by law, on a country-by-country basis.
Tweets still must flow blog.twitter.com/2012/01/tweets…
— Twitter (@twitter) January 26, 2012
“In the face of a valid and applicable legal order,” Twitter spokeswoman Jodi Olson told techPresident’s Nick Judd via an email, “the choice facing services is between global removal of content with no notice to the user, or a transparent, targeted approach where the content is removed only in the country in question.” Twitter is opting for what the New York Times has dubbed a “micro-censorship policy,” where it will withhold certain content (aka, tweets) from Twitter users within a country.
Twitter’s help page on “country withheld content” offers more context and explanation for users than that its blog:
Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.
We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.
As is often the case, Danny Sullivan has produced the more comprehensive, detailed analysis of what the news shared on Twitter’s blog today means, backed up by solid reporting. He says that “there’s no need to hit the panic button.” Based upon what I’m reading, I agree, albeit with caveats that we’ll need to see how this is implemented.
“The restrictions will be based on the IP address of the user,” writes Sullivan. As this isn’t perfect, Twitter will allow people to override this, if they believe they’re being inaccurately targeted.” As Sullivan explains, Twitter has been complying with DMCA requests for some time. This move actually means we will probably learn more about what’s been happening. Here’s the meat of his post:
“What’s new is that eventually, Twitter may expand to having staff based in other countries. That makes the company more liable to legal actions in those countries, so it needs a way to comply with those legal demands. The new “Country Withheld Content” change gives it a framework to do so.
That, of course, leads to another concern. What if some country undergoing a revolution declares that tweeting about protests is illegal? Would Twitter suddenly start censoring tweets that many within those countries might depend on?
Twitter tells me that this is more a hypothetical concern than a real one that it expects to face. Typically when this happens, Twitter says, it doesn’t get demands to to block particular accounts or tweets. Instead, authorities in the affected countries either ignore Twitter (good for freedom of expression) or block it entirely (bad, but also out of Twitter’s control).”
The crux of the matter, to me, is that Twitter is a venture-backed private company with investors that want to see growth and profit. It’s not a public utility. Jack has said that he envisions every connected device being able to tweet. That’s not going to come to pass unless they expand into the world’s biggest markets, China and India. To do so, Twitter will have to make similar decisions as Google did when it entered China and censored its results. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt decided eventually to change how it handled search, redirecting to Hong Kong. This is only a first pass at understanding what’s happened here and why, so other explanations are welcome in the comments, if grounded in fact.
As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have been explaining for years, what we think of as the new public square online is complicated by the fact that these platforms for free expression are owned and operated by private companies. Rebecca has explored these issues and how we can think of them in context in her new, excellent book, “Consent of the Networked.”
“I know some people saw this and got upset about “censorship!” but looking at the details, it actually looks like Twitter is doing a smart thing here, wrote Mike Masnick, the founder of TechDirt, on Twitter deciding to censor locally than block globally:
You could argue that the proper response would be to stand up to local governments and say, “sorry, we don’t block anything” — and I’d actually have sympathy with that response. But the truth is that if a government is demanding censorship, then Twitter is likely going to have to comply or face complete blocking. The solution that it came up with is somewhat more elegant: it will just block the specific content in the specific location and (importantly) will try to let users know that the content is blocked while also sending as much info as it can to the Chilling Effects website so that people can learn about what’s being censored. This is a lot more transparent and hopefully actually shines more light on efforts to censor Twitter.
While hundreds of millions of people may hope that Twitter’s executive team, including @Jack or @DickC, Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, and YouTube‘s execs, to name key players, will act in the public interest and protect their users, they are obligated to obey the laws of the countries they operate within and their major shareholders.
As I’ve written elsewhere, my sense is that, of all of the major social media players — which in 2012 now include Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Tumblr and MySpace, amongst others — Twitter has been one of the leaders in the technology community for sticking up for its users where it can, particularly with respect to the matter of fighting to make Twitter subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department regarding user data public.
From my view, this isn’t different from how Twitter’s already been handling court-ordered requests, except that it won’t affect users outside of a given country. Given their moves to open an office in the UK (with all of its crazy defamation laws), I can see why they’ve taken this route. It’s unfortunate that they may have to censor any content at all, but I applaud their move to be as transparent as possible about it.
Twitter’s general counsel, Alexander Macgillivray (@amac) deserves all due credit for that decision and others, along with the lucid blog post that explained how SOPA would affect ordinary, non-infringing users.
Both Colin Crowell, Twitter’s head of public policy, and MacGillivray indicated on Twitter today that if tweets are “reactively withheld” in a given country, the rest of the world will still be able to see them.
The Chilling Effects page for Twitter “is a first step towards that, though we hope to have fewer datapoints,” tweeted MacGillivray.
Let’s hope they uphold that commitment and share raw data about the censorship requests, as +Google itself has done, where possible.
UPDATE: Per Xeni Jardin’s post on Twitter and censorship at BoingBoing, Macgillivray told her “three quick things”:
#1: I can confirm that this has nothing to do with any investor (primary or secondary).
#2: This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25
#3: you’ll see notices about withheld content at: http://www.chillingeffects.org… so you’ll get to figure out whether we’ve “caved” or not with data. This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.
Mathew Ingram also posted a thoughtful analysis of Twitter censoring tweets at GigaOm:
The company says that it will not accede to just any request for removal, regardless of whether it comes from a government, and has made it clear that its commitment to free speech extends to dissidents using Twitter for revolutionary purposes during events such as the Arab Spring in Egypt. But as Twitter becomes more and more of a global phenomenon, those commitments could be put to the test. What happens when someone posts a tweet that makes fun of the founder of Turkey, something that is a crime under Turkish law?
More than anything else, Twitter’s announcement highlights both how integral a part of the global information ecosystem it has become, and how vulnerable that ecosystem can be when a single entity controls such a crucial portion of it. How Twitter handles that challenge will ultimately determine whether it deserves the continued trust of its users.
UPDATE: Jillian C. York wrote more about Twitter’s latest move on her blog:
Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. 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.
In the event that a company chooses to comply with government requests and censor content, there are a number of mitigating steps the company can take. The most important, of course, is transparency, something that Twitter has promised. Google is also transparent in its content removal (Facebook? Not so much). Twitter’s move to geolocate their censorship is also smart, given the alternative (censoring it worldwide, that is) – particularly since it appears a user can manually change his or her location.
I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies. Twitter has previously taken down content–for DMCA requests, at least–and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future. I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation…and I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up.”
UPDATE: Writing at the Wall Street Journal’s “Real Time China” blog, Josh Chin looks at Chinese reactions to the news and what it would take to get Twitter unblocked in China. His reporting casts doubt on my speculation above and in a statement I gave to Al Jazeera last night.
Even if Twitter were somehow able to get in Beijing’s good graces, Mr. Bishop says, it would have almost no shot at competing with home-grown “weibo” microblogging products from Sina and Tencent that are already well-established and offer more features. “Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are better products,” he says. “Twitter’s only competitive advantage here is freedom of speech. Once you start censoring, what do you have left to offer?”
Indeed, Mr. Dorsey himself quashed the idea of Twitter being able to break into China in an interview in Hong Kong in October in which he said his company “just can’t compete” in China “and that’s not up to us to change.”
In developing the ability to censor tweets by region, Twitter more likely has different markets in mind. The only countries mentioned by name in the blog post announcing the new policy were France and Germany, both of which, the post notes, ban pro-Nazi content. How to handle that ban is a dilemma that Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all struggled with in Germany.
UPDATE: Nick Judd published an excellent post at techPresident reporting on why some prominent journalists and free expression advocates, including Andy Carvin (see comment below) and York aren’t mad about Twitter’s censorship move:
All of this seems to indicate that Twitter chose this way to proceed in the hopes that it would serve as a compromise between the company’s desire to expand globally and its desire to remain on the same side as the folks at the EFF on issues like user privacy and user rights. This is the same company that, despite getting no money from its users, went to the legal mat for some of them to earn the right to notify them that federal investigators wanted records of their direct messages in conjunction with a Wikileaks investigation. But it’s still a company, and as such, its platform has to adhere to the rule of law in the U.S. and anywhere else it has staff, or, well … Megaupload.
Twitter’s move here is not really pre-emptive. Other Internet giants have already implemented a similar policy. Google, remember, already maps every request for content removal or government request for user data that it can.
And Twitter actually is under pressure from foreign governments — just not the ones you’d expect.
As we say here on the interwebs, read the whole thing.
UPDATE: “Twitter’s policy is actually a model of how this should work,” says “technosociologist” Zeynep Tufecki, who writes that Twitter’s new policy is helpful to free-speech advocates:
In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can. It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks cas,e and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.
Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.
“Decentralization is often great but in Internet is not free of questions of jurisdiction and law. As such, this is a good policy,” she tweeted. “It reflects recognition that Net isn’t “virtual”; it’s not a law & govt free zone; Q is how to protect freedoms given reality.”
UPDATE: “The reality, of course, is that these are businesses with corporate interests, not triumphant defenders of free speech — and they each provide the bulk of their services for free, and make money by selling their users’ attention to advertisers,” writes Mathew Ingram on his an excellent post curating of links and analysis regarding this move over at GigaOm considering how much should we trust our information overlords. (And yes, linking to his linking is feeling a bit meta today.)
Dave Winer and other open-network advocates have repeatedly made the point that relying on a single corporation, or even several of them, for access to such important tools of communication is a huge risk. But what choice do we have? We either have to try harder to find more open alternatives, or we have to trust that Google and Twitter and Facebook are looking out for our best interests — and when they don’t, we have to make it clear that they are failing, and hold them to account.
UPDATE: I talked with Al Jazeera English about making sense of Twitter and censorship. Cynthia Wong, Director of the Global Internet Freedom Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, was also quoted in the story.
[Wong] says the question Twitter must ask itself is, is it better to remain available in a country, even if some content is blocked?
Wong says Twitter is in fact being thoughtful in its answer to that question. “They are limiting the impact of the block to only the local jurisdiction, trying to be transparent about which tweets are withheld, and at what government’s request,” Wong said.
Whether Twitter is trying to be thoughtful or not, opposition to the decision around the world was swift and negative, with many Twitter users protesting the decision. Journalists and human rights advocates, understandably, have raised serious concerns about Twitter’s decision. Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter to Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey asking him not to co-operate with censors.
We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board. By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.
We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Twitter has published an update to its post on the decision:
…we believe the new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability— and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal.
Q: Do you filter out certain Tweets before they appear on Twitter?
A: No. Our users now send a billion Tweets every four days—filtering is neither desirable nor realistic. With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request.
As we do today, we will evaluate each request before taking any action. Any content we do withhold in response to such a request is clearly identified to users in that country as being withheld. And we are now able to make that content available to users in the rest of the world.
The reaction from dissidents around the world has been particularly striking, given the potential impact of this decision upon their ability to speak out. As RSF noted, freedom of speech is part of the universal declaration of human rights. For many users or potential users, Twitter’s decision means that, while their speech will be preserved for the rest of the world to see, their fellow citizens may not. While this approach may be nuanced, the company can be fairly criticized for ever deciding to censor tweets at all. In the initial blog post on this decision, Twitter stated that the standards for free expression some countries “differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.”
Individuals and organizations within the broad coalition opposing SOPA due to concerns about freedom of expression online should find common cause with those who now would question Twitter’s decision to “exist” at all in countries whose governments do not respect the universal human rights of their citizens, as opposed to providing them with the means to share “what’s happening” with the rest of humanity.
The “Internet freedom” policies advanced by the U.S. Department of State under the Obama administration would, in theory, support that position as well. This is precisely the “dictator’s dilemma” that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described. There should be a line where preserving principle is more important than opening new markets.
UPDATE: Writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eva Galperin considered what Twitter’s local takedown system would mean fro freedom of expression. She wrote a thoughtful, thorough post, including a note that Twitter has already been taking down content and echoing the opinion of others that the driver for the announcement is Twitter’s expansion to new countries with laws that govern freedom of expression, like Germany, where it will be bound by them. “Twitter is trying to mitigate these problems by only taking down access to content for people coming from IP addresses the country seeking to censor that content,” writes Galperin. “That’s good. For now, the overall effect is less censorship rather than more censorship, since they used to take things down for all users. But people have voiced concerns that ‘if you build it, they will come,’–if you build a tool for state-by-state censorship, states will start to use it. We should remain vigilant against this outcome.”
Galperin also offers specific actions that Twitter users concerned about the company’s actions can take, beyond protesting the move or leaving the platform all together:
Keep Twitter honest. First, pay attention to the notices that Twitter sends and to the archive being created on Chilling Effects. If Twitter starts honoring court orders from India to take down tweets that are offensive to the Hindu gods, or tweets that criticize the king in Thailand, we want to know immediately. Furthermore, transparency projects such as Chilling Effects allow activists to track censorship all over the world, which is the first step to putting pressure on countries to stand up for freedom of expression and put a stop to government censorship.
What else? Circumvent censorship. Twitter has not yet blocked a tweet using this new system, but when it does, that tweet will not simply disappear—there will be a message informing you that content has been blocked due to your geographical location. Fortunately, your geographical location is easy to change on the Internet. You can use a proxy or a Tor exit node located in another country. Read Write Web also suggests that you can circumvent per-country censorship by simply changing the country listed in your profile.
This post has been updated as further information or posts have become available.