In June of 2009, leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the Chinese government blocked access by its citizens to Twitter, Flickr and a number of other US-based websites. Social media being already widespread throughout the country, perhaps the Chinese government feared the possibility of events like unfolded elsewhere 18 months later, in what became known as the Arab Spring.
Two and a half years later, Twitter remains blocked in China, though many people find ways to make use of it none the less. China isn’t the only country that’s related to Twitter’s announcement last week that the social network will now selectively censor messages country-by-country when it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity.” Debate went on throughout the last week about the policy, but I think there are at least three big questions that remain unanswered.
Some have said that this is an unacceptable compromise by Twitter. World-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei says, on Twitter, “If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting.”
“If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting.” -Ai Weiwei
But many free speech advocates begrudgingly say that the company is doing everything it can to stay engaged in repressive countries where non-compliance with local censorship is not an option.
“I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies,” blogs Jillian C. York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “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.”
It’s interesting to see York say she’ll raise hell if the policy is misapplied and Ai Weiwei to say he’ll go silent on the network if the policy is applied at all.
Three questions in particular remain in my mind.
How Will This Censorship Be Used?
What kinds of content will be censored with this new capability? What will governments around the world demand be removed from the site? Will it be things like the identities of people involved in court cases, as the UK’s controversial Super Injunctions looked to ban on Twitter this Spring? That’s information that has long been banned from newspapers. Would Twitter have co-operated with that kind of legal move if it was instructed to today?
“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.” -Jillian C. York, EFF
As London-based Matt Brian pointed out at the time, enforcement of such legal prohibitions could be complicated by the abscence of Twitter business operations on British soil. Will that be a relevant matter in the future?
Or will Tweet-zapping be called for in places like Syria, where users rallied under the hashtag #RamadanMassacre in August, to bring global awareness to the brutality of the Syrian government they protested? If told to do so by a government massacring its citizens in the streets, will Twitter render all people in that country unable to see messages of protest on its network? Will shouting into such an eerie silence change the way such Tweeting campaigns also engage with the outside world? I would think so.
At what point would such demands no longer be interpreted by Twitter as being “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity?” When the US State Department ruled a foreign government invalid, perhaps?
How Will Twitter Censorship Impact People Arrested for Their Tweets?
It is not unheard of for people around the world to be arrested for their Tweets. As Curt Hopkins reported on ReadWriteWeb in November, 2010:
Cheng Jianping has wound up in a Chinese ‘re-education camp’ with a record-breaking five words on Twitter. Mocking nationalistic vandalism that flared up around a Chinese-Japanese dispute over the ownership of uninhabited islands, she retweeted another’s message and added the ironic admonition, ‘Charge, angry youth!’
Middle Eastern Tweeters have been arrested for quips mocking their ruling royal families.
Will the governments in question issue a take-down order to Twitter on their way to knock down the doors of the Tweeters in question? Or will they not bother?
Will people be arrested for messages that no one else in their country can even see anymore? How Orwellian.
Will This Reduce Conspiracy Theories About Twitter Censorship? Should It?
What’s unique about Twitter’s position, some people say, is not the censorship but the transparency about it. One might hope that if every instance of censorship is openly and loudly announced by Twitter, that critics who have long suspected Twitter was censoring conversation about topics of great importance to them might be less inclined to be suspicious.
In recent months some have worried that Twitter was systematically de-emphasizing discussion about the Occupy protests. In 2010, some of the first wide-spread concerns about Twitter censorship arose when the Israeli army clashed with a flotilla seeking to deliver aid to Palestinians despite an embargo.
Charles Arthur of the Guardian told the story as follows:
The attack by Israel on a flotilla of ships approaching Gaza has, as you’d expect, generated a huge response on social media – and of course Twitter, with its real-time content, was quick to react.
Many users began the morning by tagging their comments about it with “#flotilla” – a “hashtag” which gives a structure to a discussion or emerging event, as you can filter searches in applications such as Tweetdeck so that you only see those with that tag.
But at around 11am, as #flotilla began “trending” – rising to the topmost-used hashtags on the service – it seemed to vanish.
Was this censorship by Twitter?
Twitter Headquarters investigated why that happened and found that there was another event, elsewhere in the world, that was using the hashtag #flotilla as well, at the same time. Twitter’s automated spam fighting software saw unrelated uses of the hashtag and zapped it from the Trending Topics list. Conspiracy resolved.
In all likelihood, critics will still suspect in many cases that Twitter is engaged in censorship even if the company doesn’t take the steps for transparency that they have pledged to take. No one but perhaps some of the very deep pockets who have invested in Twitter is really evil, though, (not the employees) and so now under the new policy, the simplest explanation of why some communication is less visible on the network than expected will likely never be covert censorship.
It’s a complicated situation, though. Much remains to be seen with regard to how the new “feature” will be used and what it will mean for people facing repression around the world. Twitter will no doubt face ongoing scrutiny for its practices, as all communication network infrastructure companies deserve.