Twitter has been a lot more proactive in complying with national-government requests to block particular tweets and user accounts than many activists had expected—a stance that may be helping it reach its growth targets, but that also puts its historic dedication to free speech in jeopardy.
Earlier this month, for instance, Twitter acquiesced to five requests to block “blasphemous” and “un-ethical” tweets in Pakistan. Since December, it has complied with 10 of 14 takedown requests from Russia—some of which actually involve blocking tweets from a Ukrainian account so that it can’t be viewed in Russia. These actions affected an unknown but presumably large number of tweets, as they targeted not just particular messages, but also certain user accounts and even Twitter search results.
Two years ago, Twitter unveiled its “country withheld content” tool, the ungainly moniker for its ability to block tweets from appearing in certain countries. Its goal, essentially, was to comply with limited, legally authorized requests to block tweets in order to forestall a broader nationwide ban on the service, as happened briefly in Turkey a few months ago.
See also: Turkey Will Lift Its Twitter Ban
Activist organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation initially supported Twitter’s steps with the blocking it tool, viewing it as a lesser of evils and noting that it would be subject to broad oversight by its own users and the Internet at large. In a blog post at the time, the EFF added that it expected Twitter would only feel compelled to block tweets when it received a court order in countries where it keeps offices and employees—the U.K., Ireland, Japan and Germany.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
The Censorship Tool: If You Build It, They Will Come
Twitter has long distinguished itself as a strong supporter of free speech and an advocate for its users’ privacy; CEO Dick Costolo even referred to the company as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” But that was 2011. Twitter’s big IPO is now history, and now the company faces investor pressure to remake itself as a service for a more general audience—a mandate Twitter has interpreted as copycatting Facebook and focusing on commerce opportunities.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Twitter has also recently warmed to tweet-blocking requests. The two most recent instances are particularly interesting, because the company doesn’t have offices or employees in either Pakistan or Russia. It’s also not clear that Twitter received an actual court order in either case.
In Pakistan, Twitter blocked the allegedly blasphemous tweets after receiving a request from the country’s telecommunications authority. The tweets in question include messages from anti-Islam bloggers and the so-called Duke porn star Belle Knox. Others bore images of burning Qurans and crude cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
It’s the first time Twitter has used its country withheld content tool in Pakistan. The Pakistan advocacy organization Bolo Bhi claims the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority doesn’t have the right to ask Twitter to take down tweets.
Earlier this month in Russia, Twitter received a request to block the account “@PravyjSektorRus,” an account that belongs to a Ukrainian political party some Russian officials characterize as neo-Nazi fascists. Twitter blocked the political account in Russia, allegedly after receiving a Russian court order to do so. (In a recent blog post, the EFF wrote that Twitter had “confirmed” its receipt of a court order and that the company would be posting it on the site ChillingEffects.org, where Twitter posts all such “withheld content” requests it accepts, though there’s no sign of it yet. Update: See the links below. It’s not clear where they come from, unless it’s from the Office of the Prosecutor General, which is not a court.)
Twitter has apparently come to the same conclusion as Internet giants like Facebook and Google—namely, that you can’t build a platform that lets people say and share what they want without pissing off authorities. So in order to continue to grow, Twitter must, however reluctantly, censor its users when bureaucrats, authoritarians and religiously minded officials ask it to.
In Twitter’s desperation to become a global competitor to Facebook, it’s running headlong into its commitment to free speech—and free speech is losing. While the company and national authorities might be pleased with this direction, users will suffer the consequences of yet another tech company putting profit before people.
We’ve reached out to Twitter for comment, so far with no response. We’ll update if we hear back.
Lead image courtesy of Giridhar Appaji Nag Y on Flickr