On Thursday, Twitter announced on its blog that it will begin a new censorship policy that works on a country-by-country basis. Content that breaks laws, such as pro-Nazi material in Germany or perceived slights against the king in Thailand, will be censored specifically in those countries – the rest of the world will still have unaltered access to those tweets. Users will be notified of any censorship that takes place, and governments can order content censored within their countries at will.
Unsurprisingly, there has been backlash. The use of Twitter to help stoke the fires of the Arab Spring of 2011 would likely not have been as widespread had this policy been in place last year. Demand Progress has introduced an open letter, and is encouraging people to sign on, railing against the policy and asking Twitter to reverse course. Ultimately, that’s all Demand Progress can do – ask. Twitter is, first and foremost, a business. It will make business decisions.
How is this a business decision? It’s unclear, but one possibility is that Twitter, which is currently completely blocked in China, would like to enter that country, and its population of well over a billion people. There’s no way that’s happening without a censorship policy that will satisfy the Chinese government.
An interesting point here is that censorship will only take place on a case-by-case basis – no filters will be implemented. In practice, that’s going to require a lot of manpower and effort on the parts of individual governments to catch offending tweets and order them censored. In a firestorm like the Arab Spring, it’s difficult to imagine governments keeping up with potentially millions of people tweeting about a cause. By the time full censorship takes place, the damage will likely be done – once a message is read, the message is spread. Governments, and Twitter, may be able to censor, but they can’t make people unread what they have already read.
And, in the spirit of Internet ingenuity, a workaround has already been found. Users can change the manual location setting to a country other than the one they live in to view tweets that are blocked in their country.
It seems like Twitter is entering into a delicate balancing act with this policy – as a result, more tweets will be seen in more repressive countries, as currently, entire Twitter accounts can be blocked by governments, rather than targeting individual tweets. The best parts of Twitter – what helped foment revolution against repressive dictators – will still be there, albeit in a more tenuous form. So, what do we make of Twitter’s statement in support of the policy:
“As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression”
On one hand, it’s easy to pass off such a statement as retrogressive marketing speech – euphemism in its lowest form, and one society is growing all too accustomed to seeing. On the other hand, it could be read as a smokescreen to appease governments interested in repressing the speech of its people, however thin that screen might be.
Ultimately, this is a business decision. Twitter, as a business, wants to expand, and an important way for them to do that is to be allowed into China, which would grant them access to the world’s largest population. The potential there is tantalizing. But, it’s worth noting that Twitter is still leaving the door open, if only just a crack, for the same kinds of courageous social media movements that came to define 2011. Time will tell how this policy shakes out once it becomes fully implemented.