Twitter Selling Out to Censorship Pressure?

By Matt Bramowicz on January 30th, 2012

In a controversial step, Twitter announced its new censorship plan to allow country-specific censorship of tweets that might break local laws.

This comes as quite a big shock and disappointment to those in other oppressive countries, where there is no freedom of speech.  Recently, Twitter has played a pivotal role in many political protests, in particular the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Syria; countries where Twitter is often the only outlet many citizens have of being able to communicate freely.  Censoring them on Twitter would be like turning your back on them, ostensibly pulling away the life preserver from someone who is struggling to survive.

Due to this, many of the tweets calling for a boycott of Twitter on Saturday – using the hashtag (hash)TwitterBlackout – came from the Middle East.  “This decision is really worrying,” said Larbi Hilali, a pro-democracy blogger and tweeter from Morocco. “If it is applied, there will be a Twitter for democratic countries and a Twitter for the others.”

In China, where activists have embraced Twitter even though it’s blocked inside the country, artist and activist Ai Weiwei tweeted in response to the news: “If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting.”

Reporters Without Borders, which advocates globally for press freedom, sent a letter to Twitter’s executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, urging that the censorship policy be ditched immediately.

“By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization,” the letter said. “Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is unacceptable.”

Reporters Without Borders noted that Twitter was earning praise from free-speech advocates a year ago for enabling Egyptian dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected.

“We are very disappointed by this U-turn now,” it said.

However, Twitter insists that critics are viewing their censorship plan in the wrong light.  According to their plan, Twitter will post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed and will post the removal requests it receives from governments, companies and individuals at the website chillingeffects.org.  Previously, when Twitter erased a tweet, it vanished throughout the world. Under the new policy, a tweet breaking a law in one country can be taken down there and still be seen elsewhere.

“The critics are jumping to the wrong conclusions,” said Alexander Macgilliviray, Twitter’s general counsel.  “This is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency and accountability,” he said. “This launch is about us keeping content up whenever we can and to be extremely transparent with the world when we don’t. I would hope people realize our philosophy hasn’t changed.”

“Twitter is being pilloried for being honest about something that all Internet platforms have to wrestle with,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “As long as this censorship happens in a secret way, we’re all losers.”

Many believe there may be a correlation between this new censorship plan and the recent $300 million investment in Twitter by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Mac, however Twitter insists the investment has nothing to do with their new policy.

More than likely, the underlining principle might just come down the same thing it always does:  Money.  Twitter is looking to expand its audience from about 100 million active users now to more than 1 billion. Doing so may require it to engage with more governments and possibly to face more pressure to censor tweets; if it defies a law in a country where it has employees, those people could be arrested.  Many of the critics assailing the new policy suggested that it was devised as part of a long-term plan for Twitter to enter China, where its service is currently blocked.

China’s Communist Party remains highly sensitive to any organized challenge to its rule and responded sharply to the Arab Spring, cracking down last year after calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. Many Chinese nonetheless find ways around the so-called Great Firewall that has blocked social networking sites such as Facebook.

“It’s a tough problem that a company faces once they branch out beyond one set of offices in California into that big bad world out there,” said Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists. “We’ll have to see how it plays out – how it is and isn’t used.”

Click here to read about how Jack Dorsey defends Twitter’s new censorship policy with TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis.

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