Ever since the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Twitter has been seen by many as an engine for free speech — and particularly the kind of political speech that questions authority and/or gives ordinary citizens the power to inform themselves. Although the company’s gaze often seems to have moved elsewhere, now that it is publicly traded and pursuing advertising deals, its resolve to fight a ban by the Turkish government shows it isn’t ready to give up its claim to be the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” any time soon.
Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan sparked the social-media battle by blocking Twitter last week, forcing users in that country to employ a number of workarounds — including Tor anonymization technology and open DNS servers run by companies like Google, which were circulated quickly via email and even graffiti. Since then, a court has overturned the ban, but Twitter reportedly remains blocked, since the government apparently has 30 days to respond to the court’s decision.
In a blog post on Wednesday, Twitter’s general counsel Vijaya Gadde outlined the context for the blockage and its ongoing attempts to challenge the ban. The Turkish government’s decision was apparently triggered by several accounts that it believed were behaving illegally, including one pretending to be someone it was not — which is a breach of Twitter’s terms of service — and another that was spreading information accusing a former government minister of corruption.
Twitter says it received two court orders to take down content that breached its rules (which the company said it had already done before it was ordered to do so) but added that it is fighting the third order, which was to remove the account accused of posting details of corruption in the government. As Gadde put it:
“This order causes us concern. Political speech is among the most important speech, especially when it concerns possible government corruption. That’s why today we have also petitioned the Turkish court on behalf of our users to reverse this order.”
Twitter blocking content while it fights
While Twitter appeals the order, it is using its “Country Withheld Content” tool, which allows the service to block specific tweets from being seen within specific geographic areas. It launched this ability in early 2012 in order to get around legal issues in Germany, where content that promotes Nazi ideology is against the law, and has since used it in France, Japan and Russia for a variety of reasons. The company also said it would be filing the details of the Turkish order and its response with Chilling Effects, a central directory for all such requests that Twitter committed to use when it implemented the blocking feature.
In fighting the Turkish government’s attempts to either block the service or force it to remove content, Twitter is sticking to the commitment made by its former general counsel Alex Macgillivray that it would remain the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” Twitter has not only fought against requests from governments — including the U.S. government — for information about users, but has also notified users of such requests even after being ordered not to do so.
As I argued in a recent post, Turkey’s ban on the service is in many ways the best advertisement Twitter could have wanted for its ability to route around government censorship and give citizens a way of spreading crucial information — as it did during recent riots in Turkey and in Ukraine. Today’s action against the Turkish government seems to be the company’s way of saying that it plans to maintain that status for the foreseeable future.