The conventional wisdom in many circles is that Twitter’s biggest challenge lies in figuring out how to monetize its growing user base. And perhaps for the company’s venture-capitalist backers or other startup founders, that is the most important question it has to answer — but it is far from the only one. Recent events involving the French and German governments, and even the British legal system, have highlighted another crucial issue the network will have to struggle with, one that is arguably just as important to its future: namely, can it grow internationally and still maintain its self-professed status as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party?”
As my GigaOM colleague Bobbie Johnson pointed out in a recent post, the French government has been making some strong — and controversial — statements about what it wants the company to do after an outbreak of homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic comments erupted on Twitter. The minister for women’s rights, Najat Belkacem-Vallaud, wrote in a newspaper opinion piece that the government believes the service must “respect the values of the Republic” and take action to stop or censor hate speech. She said French authorities will be discussing how to do this with Twitter, and added (translation by Google):
“Even before the work is started, it should already be possible to act to remove tweets that are clearly illegal and, at the very least, make access impossible, so that the damage already done [to homosexuals, etc.] do not persist or do not cause additional problems with young people attracted by the publicity given to this unfortunate story.”
Many governments want to use Twitter to control speech
Since French laws make hate speech illegal (as similar laws do in a number of other countries, including Canada), the minister is really just asking Twitter to do the same thing the German government did: that is, to censor speech that contravenes the laws of the country. In the case of Germany, it was tweets by a neo-Nazi group, since expressing Nazi ideologies is illegal there. Twitter explained at the time that it had no choice but to obey the laws of the countries it does business in, but that it would try to limit the impact on free speech by only blocking access to those tweets for residents of Germany — as permitted by the regional-censorship tools it announced about a year ago.
Although they haven’t gone as far as France or Germany, officials in Britain have also broached the idea of trying to restrict Twitter speech — and for what they say are similarly virtuous purposes: after the riots in London last year, the government argued that much of the violence was driven by social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry instant messaging. The authorities held discussions with most of the major players about how (or whether) they should regulate such conduct, but in the end no action was taken. Twitter has also been involved in some of that country’s infamous “super-injunction” cases, where even the mention of an injunction is considered illegal.
In some ways, the German example was the most clear-cut case Twitter could possibly have wanted: it referred to specific speech — expressing Nazi ideology — that is illegal, and is relatively easy to nail down. But this ability opens a vast can of worms for a company whose CEO and general counsel have both repeatedly referred to it as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
In Turkey, for example, it’s illegal to say or do anything that is seen as insulting to Turkishness — a law that the government has used to block YouTube videos, among other things. What if Turkey was to ask Twitter to block or ban tweets or accounts that engaged in anti-Turkish behavior? A similar kind of question came up during the recent hostilities between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, when both sides used Twitter to hurl threats at each other. What if Israel asked Twitter to ban or block Hamas accounts or tweets sympathetic to this illegal organization? What if Egypt had asked for censorship during the Arab Spring?
What qualifies as hate speech on Twitter?
The racist and homophobic tweets targeted by the French government are an even slipperier slope: even if hate speech is against the law, what 140-character messages would fall into that category? Would simply using a hashtag like #SiMonFilsEstGay (If my son was gay) or #UnBonJuif (A good Jew) qualify? If Twitter was supposed to be removing or blocking access to specific tweets, how would it determine which were genuinely hate speech? Would it have a list of banned words, or run some kind of sentiment algorithm filter on the entire stream?
In a very real sense, what the French government seems to want Twitter to do — or wants to help it do — is virtually impossible. Twitter sees almost half a billion tweets every day, and has difficulty even providing a search function that works over a longer period than about a week. How could it (or anyone else) manage to filter through those millions of tweets to remove or block access to ones that expressed specific thoughts or opinions? And even if it could, would that be the right thing to do? Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian makes a persuasive argument that it would not, although others have argued that France should renounce the “free-speech fetish” of the U.S.
As it becomes an increasingly global media entity, however — and one that controls its own platform, unlike the declining media giants of the past — this is an issue Twitter is going to have to confront head on. And how it handles these kinds of censorship demands will say a lot about how much trust we can have in this digital free-speech machine.